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Maturity, revisited

Photo by Scott Fiddelke

Terrible things have been happening in videogames culture.

In February, BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler was the subject of seething, Reddit-led internet vitriol because she had, five years earlier, stated that she sometimes preferred narrative over action in videogames. The reposting of an edited excerpt of the interview on Reddit where Hepler stated this led to an awful and very personal campaign that saw Hepler called “a cancer,” and harassed by twitter, email, and phone.

Three weeks ago, a trailer for the upcoming Hitman: Absolution featured the gory killing of a group of women assassins dressed in S&M-type ‘sexy’ nun outfits by the game’s protagonist, Agent 47. The response to the trailer was all-encompassing. If it was designed to create controversy and draw attention, it did its job well, with criticism coming from locations as diverse as IGN, Daily Mirror, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Brendan Keogh’s Critical Damage. About a week later, the developers of Hitman, IO Interactive, apologised with a classic: “We just wanted to make something cool, it wasn’t the intention to stir up anything.”

Two weeks ago, Ron Rosenberg, the executive producer of the new Tomb Raider game, told Kotaku, “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character … They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.’” Rosenberg also noted a sequence where an enemy tries to rape Croft, and she’s forced to fight back: “It’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s forced to either fight back or die.” After substantial criticism of both remarks, Crystal Dynamics, the studio behind the game, released a statement denying that there is an attempted rape sequence in the game, and that “Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.” As far as I know, the patronising suggestion that gamers don’t empathise with Croft in the same way as a male character has not been addressed in the same way.

All this time, Anita Sarkeesian was running a Kickstarter campaign for funding for her project ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’. In return, Sarkeesian was subject to an “organized and sustained effort” of harassment. In her own words:

“The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as “terrorism”, as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website. These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen “jokes” to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded. Thankfully, Kickstarter has been incredibly supportive in helping me deal with the harassment on their service.”

Nonetheless, Sarkeesian’s project was successfully funded, exceeding its target of $6000 by an enormous factor, eventually raising $158,922. Aside from Sarkeesian’s own dismaying account of what occurred, which you can find through her Kickstarter page, there’s a good summary at the New Statesman.

What can we make of all of this, of these terrible things?

How about this: the deepest irony about videogames culture is that as much as popular gaming stereotypes are decried and challenged, much of videogame culture does in fact live up to the cliche.

The gamers who attacked Sarkeesian and Hepler are every bit as immature and uncritical as the mainstream media think gamers are. The marketers behind Hitman: Absolution and the producer of Tomb Raider are every bit as unsophisticated and thoughtless as the moral guardians of society make videogames out to be. And I haven’t even touched on the general low quality on show at this year’s E3 videogames expo, where the sheer volume of uncritical violence displayed exceeded any anti-game lobbyist’s fantasy.

It’s often argued that images of videogames and gamers are manipulated by the mainstream in their eagerness to tap into prevalent “kids today!” dismay. This is too simple, and too easy. It may be that the mainstream approaches videogames in simplistic terms, but the images are there to begin with. The violence, the sexism, the racism, the homophobia: it’s all there. Gamers have brought this upon themselves.

My very first post here at Crikey—titled ‘Maturity’—was about looking beyond the cliches to see who actually played videogames, and what kinds of games were available. At the time, I argued that “for the most part, a lot of public engagement with videogames revolves around the question of maturity.” We think videogames are for kids, I argued, but actually, the range of people who play them is far more complex.

I still very much stand behind that statement, but I think it’s also important to realise that the most vocal sections of videogame culture resembles exactly the stereotypes that gamers get so offended by.

The original title I had in mind for this post was ‘Giving Up On Games Culture’. The point had been reached, I was going to argue, where so little of worth remained about videogames culture as a discreet entity that it wasn’t worth trying to salvage anymore. Don’t give up on games, but do give up on games culture.

I don’t think I believe that. In my original ‘Maturity’ post, I also said this:

“In 2012, videogames are utterly, quintessentially part of mainstream culture. And yet they are also fundamentally outside of, and excluded from the mainstream. Everyone is part of videogame culture, and everyone is outside of videogame culture.”

It’s important to remember that what I’ve described above is not just a videogame problem. At least two of these events can also be directly tied to greater cultures of internet misogyny and anonymous commenting habits, at the very least, if not global anti-women values online and offline.

This is not a move to downgrade the meaning of the crisis (“Oh, but it happens all the time, you know”), but to upscale it, and recognise that videogame culture can get away with it because global culture can get away with it. Seeing this as exclusively a ‘videogames issue’ is failure of understanding how videogames culture works. There are specific structures and cultural values that allow it to be a recurrent problem in the videogame world, and this is not to deny or downplay these structures and values.

But to most effectively grasp these videogame-specific issues, we need to look outside the medium’s culture as if it was isolated and self-contained. How does this connect with the twitter movement, #mencallmethings? How does it connect with Sophie Cunningham’s excellent Melbourne Writer’s Festival address, where she argued that “Leaders in this country are actively cultivating a climate in which women are bullied into disappearing—even further—from our culture’s public spaces”?

How does it connect with us, in Australia, where our currently-serving first female Prime Minister is routinely subject to comments and criticism specific to her sex? How does it connect with the protest signs that called her a ‘bitch’, signs that our federal opposition leader was happy to stand in front of? How does it connect to the way in which our ‘intelligentsia’ discuss women on the national broadcaster using words like ‘greedy,’ ‘tart,’ and ‘floozy’?

The point here is how meaningful a discussion we can have while drawing a line between the videogame world and the non-videogame world. Everyone is part of videogame culture, and everyone is outside of videogame culture.

It’s also about responses. Critics are getting more and more effective and loud at calling out the terrible things about videogame culture. Charlie Brooker, in his excellent column for The Guardian, is a particularly influential—and effective—example of this kind of response: “The trouble for the games industry is that on some level it believes it has to pander to these monumental bellwastes. It doesn’t, and it’ll only gain widespread acceptance when it learns to ignore them.” More locally, Brendan Keogh, David Rayfield and Katie Williams have done some excellent work recently. Even more personally, actress Aisha Tylor provided a powerful response to personal attacks she received after hosting Ubisoft’s E3 press conference.

But on some level, calling people out is not enough. Take a look at this article by David Surman at GayGamer.com, from 2007. Five years ago, Surman describes a scenario that is eerily similar to either the Hitman or Tomb Raider episodes (in fact, Kane and Lynch, the game Surman discusses, is made by IO Interactive, the same company behind Hitman).

Hitman and Tomb Raider rhetorically position themselves by using such shock tactics in their marketing. They pander, as Brooker says, to “these monumental bellwastes,” but they also understand the reaction that they will cause by doing so, no matter how much they claim they don’t mean to. By deliberately offending one demographic, they gain credibility with others. It isn’t that “all publicity is good publicity,” it’s that these are carefully calculated  marketing moves that take advantage of moral outrage in order to position a product.

There is only so far that criticism can take us in these scenarios. Do you think that all of Sarkeesian’s anonymous YouTube commenters read the well-written opinion pieces that challenged their obnoxious actions? Do they even know they exist?

Worse, it seems that sometimes, such public challenging merely reinforces such world views further: take this article at CVG, which claims that a survey they ran suggested the majority of respondents thought the videogames media had ‘manufactured’ the Tomb Raider controversy. The anti-misogyny, ‘feminazi’ conspiracy blurs into an amorphous, coherent antagonist for these people.

It is therefore just as important to try and drown out these elements of games culture as it is to try and challenge them. They draw power from their ability to see themselves as the ‘real’ normal, something that is encouraged by videogame companies when their marketing targets such ‘dissenting’ views by deliberately courting controversy. By being one of the loudest voices in the room, they are also more able to define videogames as a male dominated cultural space (a claim far from the truth). By presenting sexism as a gaming problem isolated from the rest of the world, we unintentionally give some centrality to these voices.

There are no moral arguments being made by sexist YouTube commenters. What is instead being claimed is authority. The ‘real’ gamer is someone who gives little truck to arguments of misogyny. This is how the rhetoric goes.

The best challenge, then, is to also present other, more effective narratives. Women make up almost half of those who play videogames in Australia. The best videogames this year have been completely free of all sexism. Game designers are people like Anna Anthropy. Australia’s best videogame journalists and critics are women. Sarkeesian’s project raised $158,922.

Everyone is part of videogame culture, and everyone is outside of videogame culture. Videogames, and videogame culture are a multiplicity. If nothing else, we have the power to shape what is most visible, and by inference, what is most powerful.

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  • 1
    Brendan Keogh
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Bam!

  • 2
    Daniel Hindes
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re giving the marketers more credit than they deserve. I honestly believe neither those behind Hitman or Tomb Raider deliberately calculated a means to generate some kind of targeted moral outrage.

    It wasn’t something manufactured by the games media, either. At least, not intentionally. The problem is that games media has become a gigantic echo chamber, self-perpetuating and self-serving. The second an ‘issue’ pops up, everyone sees an opportunity to express a bit of themselves outside of the news/previews/reviews churn that defines the games media.

    And yet, this is the same games media that gives Tomb Raider an E3 Game of the Show – by the largest online games publication in the world, no less. It’s the same people whose cheers now literally echo throughout an entire stadium as as a man’s face is torn apart with a shotgun blast.

    YouTube commenters aren’t the problem. Games publishers can never be truly held accountable for Hitman-like or Tomb Raider-like errors in judgement until the ones responsible for holding them accountable show a shred of professionalism.

  • 3
    Ruprecht
    Posted June 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Whether the marketers did it on purpose or not is irrelevant — if they didn’t know that they would create controversy with their trailer/comments, it’s almost worse, cos it shows they have a blind spot the size of Jupiter’s eye.

  • 4
    Tyler T
    Posted June 25, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Jennifer Hepler was attacked because she was a senior figure involved in the production of Dragon Age 2, a deeply disappointing game and seemed to be an obvious public representation of a trend at bioware towards an increasingly ‘casual’ style of game. In part it was unfair, many of the worst parts of DA2 and since then the debacle that was mass effect 3 had very little to do with her. However other aspects of the criticism of these two games used her in a perfectly appropriate way (albeit critically) as being part of the problem. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMcVZQI6ybw being an obvious example)

    There are certainly unpleasant and vocal groups online as we’re all aware however i think there is a tendency for critics/’gaming journalists’ to ‘expose’ the reliable activity of vicious online trolls and make the leap that somehow this is a problem unique to gaming. Of course anyone who has browsed and sort of blog or even looked at youtube comments will know just how wrong that sentiment is but it seems to be an easy way for these sites to generate a lazy wave of moral indignation.

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