Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Golden Days

It's a balmy spring day in New England, almost certainly in 1988.  It's late April, probably; the air smells of mud and grass and growing things and we unruly kids have been sent to go play outside.  I'm at Tommy's house, on the next street over from mine, and some other kids -- one each of our two neighborhood Matts, Brians, and Corys, and Brendan (my later first crush) -- are there too.

We're on the swing set, playing Ghostbusters until we get bored and someone announces we should play pirates instead.  I pick up a well-balanced stick and give my mightiest "ARRRR," until one of the boys says: "No, you're the princess.  Girls can't be pirates!  We need to rescue you."

I hit him with my stick for a while and claim it's "fencing."  Eventually a truce is reached and a compromise made: I'm the Princess Pirate.  Childhood harmony temporarily restored, we take to our "ship" with gusto.

You know what "princess pirate" gets you by the time you grow up?

(Not even close to the most risqué costume image I could have chosen.)
Also sometime around 1988, these friends started to get NES systems as Christmas and birthday gifts.  (I got mine in very late 1993.)  One day, I asked for a turn at Mario after one of the boys botched a jump and had to restart his level.  It was a no -- but rather than "it's my turn still" I got, "Do girls even play Nintendo?"

Well, this girl would have.  And years later, when I could buy my friend's used NES for $25 with my saved-up babysitting money, I did.

This past month has seen a lot of social justice talk in the broader, mainstream game-sphere.  Kotaku, whether through a desire purely for pageviews or through a desire actually to engage with the world-that-is, has (re-)published must-read, knockout pieces by Denis Farr, Leigh Alexander, and Mattie Brice that collectively have stirred up nearly all of the bottom-feeding muck and slime to be found in the gamer community.  On top of all that, this week writer Tom Bissell is in the news, first for having been offhandedly sexist for no reason and second for having issued one of the better public apologies I've ever read.

Naturally, there's a lot of push-back.  Any discussion of gamers who are female, any kind of queer, any race other than white, or indeed any other non-dominant population tends to kick up a fuss.  Some of it just goes under the heading of trolls, or "haters gonna hate."  But what's most disappointing and frustrating to me is when gamers who could, in theory, be allies say: "Why don't we just talk about the games?  Whatever happened to having game sites just be about games already?"

A selection of Kotaku comments

It's not necessarily done as an intentional derailing tactic (though it is above), but the effect is just the same.  In short, it tells a whole set of players that our experiences don't matter.

For clarification from Dennis, see below.

Because for many of us out there who aren't the "right" sort of gamer?  It has never, ever been "just" about the games.  From age seven, in second grade, when the boys in my class asserted that girls don't play Nintendo.  To age seventeen, in high school, when despite using a girly alias and telling everyone I was a girl, the guys all called me "he" when I won science-fiction trivia games.  To twenty-seven, when I started to understand that just because my Lone Wanderer looked female, didn't mean the game's design treated her that way.

"Can we just play the video games?"  Sure.  As soon as conscious and unconscious sexism vanish from the stories, the art, and the reviews.

Culture exists, and we all must live in it.  Our culture means that if you're the girl at the party, you might have a really hard time getting the guys to let you in on GoldenEye.  It means that if you're the girl behind the counter at the GameStop, you have to deal with a constant level of leering and commentary that your male co-workers never get.  And if you're the girl, it means that any time you try to talk about the uphill battle, you're going to get smacked right back down.

The end result is exhaustion.  Swimming upstream against culture is tiring.  And journalist Tracey Lien is right: it's not just one incident, or just one joke.  It's every last one of them.  For many of us, life is a pile of these.  There are no "simpler days" to go back to.


The ability never to be alienated by the games we play or by the people who play them is the very core of privilege.  Bust out that p-word and gamers get riotous, but there's no way around it.  Despite all of the crap that's been handed to me over the last three decades, I have privilege by the metric ton.  I'm as white as white can be, identify perfectly well with the sex and gender I was born with, and have almost exclusively heterosexual attractions.  In those senses, I'm pretty thoroughly represented in game worlds, plots, narratives, and characters.  Further, I have two good hands, two good eyes, and two good ears -- so I'm pretty thoroughly catered to in terms of game mechanics, audio-visual design, and control schemes.  For a number of my friends and peers?  The layers of crap to deal with just never end.

The golden days of everyone being able to "just play a game," if any such days exist, are ahead of us still, not lying dormant in some sepia-tinted past.  They are the same as the golden days of all our other pop culture and pop art: lying in a society that's come to terms with understanding sex, gender, race, and a whole lot more.


  1. Thank you. Will be spreading this around and shout it from the rooftops. (Support staff, like I said. :)

  2. If I could produce numbers for you illustrating that if you've never heard of Skyrim, you're probably a woman, would you retract your complaint?

    Such numbers would be relatively easy to obtain. A slight majority of the US population is female. The vast majority of non-'online' (social) gamers are male. The math is easy.

    But I think the real issue is evident when I read your concluding statement:

    "The golden days of everyone being able to 'just play a game,' if any such days exist, are ahead of us"

    How could you possibly believe this? Even if you disregard the fact that many people believe the 'golden age' is significantly behind us, how could you think that a future in which entertainment is so sanitized as to not offend anyone would be a 'golden age' ... particularly when the exact opposite is being proven in TV and film? And particularly when you write a three-page essay over a single line in an article that most of us would simply read, mentally disagree with and dismiss as a dumb joke, and forget about?

    The problem isn't games. The problem is activists with huge chips on their shoulders.

  3. And it's not just games. Growing up I heard the following:

    "Girls don't play the drums; play a girl instrument" - 6th grade band
    "Girls don't take science classes" - When i wanted to take Chemistry.
    "You are a girl. you can't take wood shop class" - High school
    "Since you won't be going to college, let me get you started in the Beautician program so you don't have to work fast food until you find a husband" - High school Guidance counselor.
    "Girls take home ec. You will take this class" - different high school guidance counselor
    "Girls don't play D&D. It's a BOYS game" - from my high school nerd pals as they excluded me
    "We expect that girls will have a hard time with parallel parking" - from my drivers ed class
    "Girls aren't DJs, but you can try voice acting for commercials" - During my college RTF courses
    "Donna can you babysit for us?" - numerous family friends. No one asked my brothers, who are WAY more nurturing than I am"

    Combine that with the years of being made to feel that every decision I make about my life and my body need a "boyfriend" or "husband" approval. IE, Getting my tubes tied. "What if your future husband wants children?" "I would never marry anyone who wanted them". "All men want their wives to have children".

    So really, so many of us women (and girls) who love games are just *TIRED* of the "jokes", the comments and mansplaining. We get it all the time. And I'm lucky. I talk from a white hetero perspective. I cannot imagine how worse it is for others, which is why I try to be the best ally I can.

    Yes, we would love for it to be "can't we just play and talk about games". But until all of this other stuff is better, our beloved hobby won't allow for it.

  4. Going to post my tweets here, since they were largely in response to this article.

    > Fun fact: Waxing nostalgic about when "games were just games" is the territory of privileged assholes. You probably don't want to be there!> "Sigh, games sure were simpler before there was any pressure to acknowledge that everyone isn't like me. The good old days, right bros?"> You were "just playing games" while your non-straight-dude peers were playing AND navigating a space that denied their existence. 

    Thank you for writing this. I'm sick and tired of the "Remember when games were just games?" argument. No, I don't remember that, because as a gamer who isn't a straight dude, that time did not exist for me. Not to scare everyone off by going all radical feminist, but what the fuck is up with dude games thinking they own history, or their version of history is more valid than mine or yours?

    The "joke" isn't about whether or not women do play Skyrim, or in what numbers. The "joke" is that games aren't a socially sanctioned pasttime for women and girls. You don't belong here. Ha-ha. Want to hear the joke again? Because if you're a girl or woman, you will. Again, and again, and again - then one more time for good measure. Funny, isn't it? They're all just jokes, they don't MEAN anything.

    Bissell's apology was definitely warranted and I'll admit I went it dreading a typical "I'm sorry you were offended, you oversensitive shrill bitches" response. I was pleasantly surprised.

  5. "The problem isn't games. The problem is activists with huge chips on their shoulders."Wait, really? Isn't the problem originating with the actual bigotry and not necessarily the people complaining about it? If we just want to get on with our games and enjoy them without hearing people complain about side issues maybe we'd further that effort if we didn't have to deal with people and attitudes that casually drop offensive language and behavior into games that aren't about that offensive behavior.  Context matters in all of this.  I'm all for mature content and subject matter in games and controversy can serve both gameplay and story in games but some of the nonsense we see certain (not all) gamers spew that has nothing to do with the game in question is a genuine problem.

  6. Argue in good faith, against the actual items I wrote, or not at all.  To do otherwise is trolling and not tolerated.  Banned.

  7. You're entirely right, as of course is the OP, about the issues of privilege which still haunt our culture, and the inherent sexism which still hangs around the neck of all our media. Apparent in so many ways, not least the representation (and non-representation) of women, of gay characters, of transsexuals, of transvestites, of non-white people... and so on.

    But at the same time you're* conflating this with something else - another deeply troubling issue, but one which is less... directed. It's the broader issue of gender roles, which damages both ways. I'm lucky enough to be a white male living in the UK, with no obvious attributes to mark me out from the crowd. And yet, as a child I grew up with exactly the same issues, albeit linked to activities and interests assumed to be 'for girls'. As in:

    "You can't colour it in pink, pink is a girls' colour. Do it again" - on colouring in a Mother's Day card in infants' school.
    "Boys don't play with dolls, play with the cars instead" - play time - again, infants' school.
    "No, only girls can come inside during break time. Go and play football" - all the way through my school years, until I got to the project stage of GCSE Art, at which point I was able to go to the art room during my break time and work on my project.

    And the general suggestions made that dancing and acting and singing and liking poetry and books were somehow not things that boys were supposed to do, making me stop pursuing those interests that I couldn't hide (i.e. leaving the school choir, dropping drama, never asking to learn to dance), and focussing on those I could engage in privately (books, poetry) or those I could talk about (i.e. computer games). As I've grown older I've managed to shake myself free of this, to some extent, but there are so many avenues I missed out on in my youth because of it that it's undoubtedly shaped me.

    Don't get me wrong, in general I face far fewer problems - I don't suffer the routine assumptions that I can't drive/need a partner to decide things for me/should be expected to be the sole housekeeper, purely because of my sex (Though on the other hand, it /is/ assumed  that in a heterosexual relationship that I be the 'protector' figure; that my being prone to cry at fiction is a sign of 'unmanly weakness'; and that my interests and large number of female friends are a similar sign of 'weakness'). My point is simply that gender roles are constantly being defined and reinforced on both sides of the divide, helping to put people of both sexes into their culturally selected positions in society, and making those who defy said roles feel unwelcome. It's miserable, and it effects us all, and I don't think it should be pigeonholed as a problem solely for women - not least as that only encourages men to feel as though they're being singled out as the bad guys and to respond against it, rather than realise that it's a problem in which every group is the bad guy and every group is the victim.

    *by "you" I mean Donna, not the OP, whose focus on computer games is very specifically an issue which effects women; it is the broader topic into which that falls, which you (Donna) address and then describe as a problem for minority groups, which I mean to discuss.

  8. This is exactly correct, and broadly speaking goes under the umbrella of "the patriarchy hurts everyone."  Strict gender roles are absolutely damaging to boys just as they're damaging to girls, and that's not even getting into what they do for all the non-binary folks out there.

  9. I *wasn't* amazed when I saw the uproar and scapegoating that Eric Swain
    observed because these issues are so charged up in the video game
    community right now. No one who's been paying attention to the discourse lately should be surprised one whit whenever something like this blows up.

    Once upon a time conversations about video games with my friends *were* about how much we loved video games. We'd exchange NES cartridges in the halls of my high school, and reveal cheat codes we'd discovered, and get together to play games. Yes, it sucks that some people may never have had that experience, and Kate, you may be among them...but I did. And while privilege may have played a part in my having those memories, I see nothing derailing in musing aloud that I miss those days.

    That is categorically NOT the same thing as saying that the discussions shouldn't be had, which is what you disappointingly imply my tweet to mean when you pull it out of context from a conversation that went on for like an hour. There must be *dozens* of places you could have pulled a screenshot from to properly represent the kind of people and arguments you're referring to.

    There's a post over on The Border House that came up on Twitter while I discussed this with Anna, an editor at that outlet:

    From the final graf:

    "Every one of the authors here is a part of The Border House because we love games. It’s our deep passion for games that makes us want to be critical of them."

    I, personally, do not usually feel passion in criticism as often as I read snark, and feel frustration and anger. I love Gus Mustrapa's "Pretension +1" column but even around the sarcasm and wit there's an anger there, a disappointment with gamers, and sometimes himself.

    When it comes to the sorts of issues that The Border House observes and comments upon, snark, frustration and anger feel especially justifiable. For people who care about social justice in any form the lack of awareness around those issues is maddening. I get a little bit of that at home from my wife, who is a social justice activist, when I don't recognize privilege fast enough or show any resistance to acknowledging it.

    But there's value in *overtly* sharing our love for video games much more often in our writing than we currently do as a group (by which I mean critics/cultural observers/people who write for audiences about games). It's something I struggle with, myself, but try to be mindful of. I even believe, perhaps foolishly, that writing about that love goes some way towards breaking down the barriers among video game players by sharing the devotion that, under the skin, puts us all in the same crowd.

    Having some love for video games expressed from all corners would be good for everyone. And no, the sort of commercial, consumer-facing video game journalism that I and others write is not "love," so it's not fair to say that there's plenty of that sort of writing already, Anna. :P

  10. I grok. I was speaking specifically to the post about the dude saying we need to lighten up and 'GODS WOMEN IT IS JUST A JOKE".

    You're absolutely correct; it isn't just a "women" problem but a much larger issue with the "accepted" gender roles. They're damaging for everyone. 

  11. Aye, I'd hoped as much - it wasn't meant as an attack in any way, it's just an issue which I have to deal with every so often when coming across other men complaining about gender discussions having anti-male agenda, which makes me doubly keen to tackle it as quickly as possible. First, in order to make clear that - hey! - this is an issue which would benefit both sexes to fix. And second, to head off at the pass the bizarre logic that some people take when recognising that the described issue affects them also - the logic that "I've suffered from this too and didn't complain, therefore it's not worth discussing". Which then results in them complaining about the argument as an attempt to derail, rather than acknowledging that if something is a problem for everybody then, well, that makes it even clearer that it's an issue that should be tackled.

    So, yes, it wasn't meant as a slight against you, just a clarification to help avoid less constructive responses following :)

  12. So, since we're all good, let us have a cake and cookie party! *throws confetti*

    I totally get where you are coming from. Like my Easy Bake oven as a kid. It was supposed to be for me to play with (and I did). But my brothers shouldn't be playing with it. That's not a view in MY family, but from outside people when one of my little bothers says "Look what I made!". 

  13. By all rights, I should be a gamer. I love fantasy and sci-fi, I like boardgames, I've rolled a d20 or 2 in my time, my spouse and many of my friends are into gaming. But statements like this--and I have heard them *so many times*--make me want to have nothing to do with gaming or gaming culture. I have limited free time. I'm not going to spend it with jerks.

  14. Princess Pirate?  They never heard of Anne Bonney growing up?!

    Sorry for digressing there...

    Also, when "games were just games"?  Back then, games were about flying pixelated spaceships down a scrolling planetzone shooting at alien bugs looking to capture your pitiful non-gendered humans.  Well, other than Donkey Kong, which was about a giant monkey throwing flaming barrels at Italian plumber stereotypes...

    Wait, did I just digress again...?

  15. That's a great moderation policy. Wherever did you pick that one up?

    fist jab

  16. That nostaligia for a privileged space comes off as a wealthy white dude longing fro the 50's- factual, it was good for him and his back then, but you're still being a dick because in waxing nostalgic, you are still ignoring the crap that the 50's were for almost everyone else in the naiton other than wealthy white men.  It was awesome- for a specific class.  for every one else? Kind of sucky.

  17. Only steal from the best, man. ;)

  18. Really excellent post, really well said. I am personally pretty lucky that I had very few, if any, experiences of someone telling me I couldn't do something because I was a girl. I actually kind of had somewhat of an opposite experience where kids' TV shows and teachers were very "girls can do anything!" And it kind of confused me because I was like, well, duh? And then I grew up and saw what the reality is, and now I understand why some folks made that extra effort.

    And I mean, we talk so much about how to make the game industry less sexist, and I think the thing that will ultimately change it the most is making sure girls know from a very young age that they not only can like and play games, they can like making games, and making games can be your job, too.

  19. I'm lucky in that my parents were never sending "no you can't" messages, and they had a way bigger influence on me than Tommy and the other second graders. ;)  Mom did always think computer games were a waste of time, but that had nothing to do with me being a girl, hehe.

  20. Dennis, since other folks have already explained why your comment was infuriating, allow me to explain a bit of context about negativity toward video games with a bit of behind-the-scenes The Border House info.

    Here's the thing: at TBH, we know we're negative and critical a lot. We know this. And you know what? Constant negativity is even less fun to write as it is to read. When posting slows down at TBH, it's often because there's so much bad crap happening, people need a break. None of our authors thrive on outrage--despite what other people may think, it's actually quite the opposite.

    This is why we have series like Characters Done Right and My Commander Shepard, and we draw folks' attention to indie games that address diversity issues: we all need positive news and reminders of why we like games in the first place.

    But we have to really go out of our way to say positive things because there is SO. MUCH. sexist, racist, homophobic, transmisogynist bullshit out there in the game industry. I mean, think about it this way: we cover almost every positive character and game we can find, but we don't get to even half the bigoted stuff. Overall, I think we give the game industry far more credit than it deserves.

  21.   If video games are a masculine territory, then the playing of them can
    be a ticket to membership in the "real man" club.   If gaming becomes a
    co-ed activity, then it stops being so, and those whose tickets have
    been invalidated will have to find new credentials.   And that will

    You can actually trace this happening with individual games -- anything that women start to play becomes "not a core game," through the course of the discussion.  You end up seeing "nothing on Facebook is a real game because women play it" become "The Sims isn't a real game" and then you even end up with "she's not a real gamer 'cause she just plays Wii and WoW," where WoW itself, seven years ago, would have been Man Territory.  (Paraphrased from an actual quote I found and blogged sometime in 2010.)

    For myself, I would reassure men that they are, in fact, men, and that
    nobody holds the keys to the "real man" club, including Herman Cain.

    A lot of it does, indeed, come down to insecurity.  Anyone know a magic way to convince the world that building up others does not actually mean diminishing themselves, and vice versa? :-P

  22. Bear in mind that the insecurity doesn't come from nowhere. I got off the Train to Macho at about age 16, but I think a big reason why I could is that my father was never really a passenger.

  23. Re: Princess Pirate

    I am somewhat stunned that the immediate role you were assigned as Princess is "captive who needs to be rescued" ... because WOW. I mean, I get the sexist second grade logic of "pirate is scum, girls aren't scum, ergo pirates aren't girls", but just because the girl is pigeonholed as the princess shouldn't require her to be a helpless git.

    Thanks, Disney films and Super Mario! Thanks for making "Princess=Useless" into some kind of universal childhood axiom.

    Because Princess-of-a-Pirate-Ship? Seriously sounds badass.

  24. I was raised in the '70s (making me 15-20 years older than most gamers!), and my mother and the schools I went to said exactly the same thing, that I could do or be whatever I wanted to.  I ended up not going the professional route with my career; regardless of my own path, once you actually get out there in the working world, you notice who owns the place.  Not denying the progress that's been made since I was a kid!  But there's still quite a ways to go.

    I am almost exclusively a solo gamer, my only multi excursions being in MMOs and gaming with my brothers, environments where behavior is expected to be under some control due to harmony being a value.  I've gotten a good idea of what lies in the gaming space beyond those comfortable walls and I have never stepped foot there.  Someone who sees an agreeable environment both inside and outside a wall like that may not think there's a wall at all.

  25. Right?? Get those kids some Xena, stat.

  26. The key to this problem is in discovering how to properly deconstruct the video game milieu and its larger sponsoring culture. 

    Here's a hint:   Break it down into pieces.  Burn those pieces until you discover it's elements.  Find the highest (positive) expression of those elements.   Arrange these positive elements into an appealing alternative.  Promote this alternative.

  27. I like how you dismiss a whole bunch of mostly solid arguments in a bingo grid, as if that means anything. Nice collection, though. "The only reason a guy could care about sexism is so women will think he is sensitive and want to fuck him" is my favourite.

    As if egoism, conflict, intolerance, ect. were a terrible thing to be vanquished, and not the driving force of the universe. "As soon as conscious and unconscious sexism vanish from the stories, the art, and the reviews."How can you not be embarrassed by this line? Waging an intolerant war against intolerance? You are thoroughly retarded. When your brain works like this, is it any wonder you always "get smacked right back down."In your weakness, the universe naturally turned against you (women, minorities, the disabled), and now you wage war on nature (fighting for "equality", "justice" and other such nonsensical fictions).Haha, it really is a hilarious little play you are putting on. Do you get it yet? Your war is of the same nature as the war against you — only infinitely more hopeless (not to mention ridiculous! — as if "equality", were it possible, would even make the world a happier place!). Try securing for yourself a rich husband, if you have a pleasing enough face and chest (I doubt it). You'll have a better chance at power that way. 

    Meanwhile, I'll keep pretending I'm a feminist to get girl's to suck my cock. 

  28. K. Cox:

    While you shouldn't validate the agenda of extreme right wing nut jobs
    by arguing with them, at least call them out when they distort facts and
    statistics. Here is demographic data from the ESA's 2011 Essential
    Gaming Facts:

    58 percent of the gaming audience is male, 42 percent is female.

    Women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing

    population (37%) than boys age 17 or younger (13%).

    Of the most frequent game purchasers, 52 percent are male and 48 percent are female.

    Among the most frequent gamers, males average 13 years of game playing, females average 10 years.

    So regardless of what hardcore trolls would like you to believe, the
    reality is the gaming audience is now more demographically diverse than
    ever before. Male players, specifically 16 to 25 years old male hardcore
    players are now a minority of the overall audience, they are not
    the majority. Unfortunately you'd never know it by looking at the current line up
    of AAA games.

  29. 1.) I don't have to justify my existence to trolls.  It's been a hard lesson to learn, but it's true.  My humanity is unassailable, and I know I'm here even if trolls don't care to.

    2.) The ESA survey in question (and earlier versions from 2009 and so on) have been cited in this blog more than once.  Trolls don't care for actual facts; they care for their version of reality.