Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Guest Post: Finding Middle Ground

After I shot off The Golden Days in December, Dennis Scimeca, the friend whose tweet I quoted, asked for an opportunity to present his point of view more clearly, in more than 140 characters.  He sent me the first draft of this post early this week, and after we talked about it I agreed to run it.

Dennis is a friend with whom I have often disagreed but I enjoy having discussions with him, and I think every argument we have clarifies the way both of us think (in a good way).  I hope you, my readers, will afford him the same careful listening and respect you so regularly afford to me.


Finding Middle Spaces
Dennis Scimeca

Kate has been gracious enough to allow me to continue a conversation in the same space in which it began, to wit Kate’s post “The Golden Days.” It turns out, according to my esteemed host that the referenced comment I made on Twitter was the inspiration for that post, which I’ve continued to find upsetting because I still haven’t clearly made the point ensconced in that statement, a point which I don’t think will be found offensive by most.

First, I want to apologize having potentially derailed a conversation about gender assumptions in gaming. I’d denied being derailing in my response to “The Golden Days” because I was laboring under the misunderstanding that derailment has to be an intentional act. It doesn’t. Lesson learned and accepted!

When I was a kid, “diversity” would have meant “boys + girls,” which I guess explains how I conceived of the metaphor below.
I’ve been struggling to come up with an explanation by which to make plain the intended meaning of that statement, and the best I’ve come up with has been the metaphor of a schoolyard. I’m standing in the schoolyard with a bunch of my friends from middle school, all boys, and we’re passing around a game manual. We’re talking excitedly about how awesome it is, and how hard it was to beat that boss on the seventh level, and what our strategies were for beating that boss. 

I look across the schoolyard and see a group of girls passing around the same game manual.  I wander over to them in the hopes of joining their conversation. It’s definitely the same game manual, but a very different conversation. They’re asking why they can only play the game as a boy character. And why are all the boobs on all the girl characters so huge? And why are all the girl characters so inept in the story, while all the boy characters are heroes?

This group of girls is angry, and frustrated, but all their points are valid and I find them extremely interesting. But I also wonder whether or not they found it hard to beat that boss on the seventh level, and what their strategies were for beating that boss. It wouldn’t be polite for me to just introduce that totally different topic in the middle of that other conversation, and the best I can do is observe the problems they’re noting and nod in agreement, but I don’t really have anything to add because these aren’t my issues, so I fade away from their group.

Now I’m standing in the middle of the schoolyard alone. I don’t want to go back to that group of boys over there because their conversation seems kind of boring now, and I can’t go back to that group of girls over there because they’re having a conversation I can’t really participate it actively. What I’d really like, instead of seeing these two segregated groups, is to get everybody together and talk about that boss on the seventh level because it would be in the midst of that conversation that we were all just a bunch of people who play video games.

In this immediate space, everyone is “just a gamer.”

If there is such a thing as “gamer culture” it is centered around and originates from the activity of playing video games, and the base set of experiences that everyone who plays video games shares. That is the shared cultural heritage. Not the reactions to, but the doing of. No matter how we react to the subject matter in a given video game, we all shared the experience of playing it.

When I read Mattie Brice’s guest editorial “Why I Don’t Feel Welcome at Kotaku,” I heard someone who wanted into a cultural space from which she felt isolated. The assumption is that “gamer culture” is dominated by cis-gendered white men who don’t want anyone else in their space, and who are hostile to women or homosexuals or transgender people who want into that space. And I think it’s time to question whether or not that is a description of “gamer culture” or a certain, admittedly large portion of gamer culture which is still holding on to the old way of things, but which is no longer an adequate descriptor for the totality of gamer culture. In other words, Mattie might feel that Kotaku is “for heterosexual white American men gamers,” but it’s probably unhealthy to assume that Kotaku represents “gamer culture” writ large. Kotaku represents Kotaku. 

People who take video games to task for their problematic presentations of gender or sexual preference and all the rest do so because they love video games. They have to discuss those issues because nothing changes if they don’t, and we have spaces for those discussions. They’re difficult and troublesome and the fact of the matter is not everyone is equipped with the skills or the emotional strength to handle them. As Border House editors have told me, those conversations are exhausting. Don’t we also need spaces which aren’t focused on those exhausting and potentially-alienating discussions to define a new normative, a new “baseline” space within which people just talk about video games? 

I’m waiting for a new sort of space that is decidedly enthusiast-facing, which celebrates the raw experience of playing of video games, but with an audience that represents the actual, accurate face of the game playing audience. And I’m not just referring to acknowledgment of the approximate 60/40 male/female gender split among the gaming population or inclusion of marginalized groups, but acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of all the traditional divisions like “hardcore” and “casual,” or PC/console vs. social/mobile.  

I’m waiting for a space where playing games is about playing games but for everyone, where people who are in that space look around them and see diversity of identities and interests and technologies, because that’s the space which will create the new paradigm of what it means to be a “gamer.”  Kate says that this new “golden age” will only arrive when we’re part of “a society that's come to terms with understanding sex, gender, race, and a whole lot more.” It’s going to be a long, long time, maybe never, before we reach that goal and if that’s the precondition we set for ourselves to create the kind of space I’m longing for, it may never happen. So why can’t we, in addition to having all of these dedicated spaces for calling out the legitimate issues that need addressing, also start building our new enthusiast spaces now? 

I’m waiting for that middle space on the playground where everyone’s all thrown together and they’re passing around that game manual and telling the tales of how fucking hard that boss was on the seventh level, and figuring out the best way to beat it, and laughing about the stupid mistakes they made and that glitch they found over in the corner of the boss’s lair where they phased through the floor and got stuck. Creating that space is just as important a part of the struggle as addressing the issues that necessitate the struggle in the first place. 

I am, again, coming at this entire conversation from a perspective of privilege. I see these issues because I make myself look at them, not because I live them, and I’m cognizant of that. But I want to make it clear that I’m not asking people to just “come over to my side of the culture,” and “just talk about video games and forget the rest.” I’m saying that I’m continuing to walk away from what “my side” of the video game culture was, but right now I don’t have another destination to arrive at.

I do miss the times when playing video games was just about playing video games, and the only way I can return to that place right now is by turning my back on all the issues whose recognition has spoiled my innocence and wallowing in my privilege, which I’m not willing to do.  I mourn the loss of those innocent days while at the same time recognizing that if those days were born at the expense of someone else’s pain or exclusion, good riddance.


  1. Dennis, I better understand what you're saying now.

    The issue of cleaning up the mess vs. building a new space, as Stephen puts it, is one as old as activism, and after several years of writing about feminism and video games I've come to see that it's not either/or but both/and. We need diplomats like Mattie making inroads to major spaces and we need separate spaces that are constructed from the start with inclusivity in mind. Both approaches are effective and necessary.

    And with the Border House, our aim is to be a game blog for everybody. But being for everybody means that both we need to have space for marginalized voices to speak about their marginalization as well as general video game talk. And you're right to step back and just listen when, for example, a woman posts about online harassment, but everyone is welcome to participate in things like the What Are You Playing Wednesday threads. We recently launched a huge community effort for readers to find other readers to play games with so they can relax and not worry about harassment or slurs. We're always going to have academic-y analysis essays and personal experience stories, but everything else sounds kind of like what you're looking for.

  2. What I think about, when I consider the space I'm looking for, is kind of like a Giant Bomb, perhaps? Frivolousness. I sometimes feel self-conscious for being so close to the Dennis who didn't write about games but only took them as amusements. I worry that it will undercut the times when I do write seriously about video games, but I think it's important to keep in touch with or find that place that houses our most innocent view of video games. We can get so wrapped up in these bubbles of hyper-awareness that I fear we run the risk of losing the perspective to have fun.

    "Fun" is a terrible criteria for criticism, but it's the essence of play, and "play" is the essence of games. I think, to a point, that play exists in a space beyond cognizance or contemplation such that it is restrained to a point in the presence of those activities. I imagine a giant playground filed with screaming, laughing kids, and the barest minimum of rules and strictures other than what human kindness and safety require.

    I look at The Border House, and I see the working-out of what those rules and strictures are. Reasonable rules. Strictures that just ask us to be human beings. And I seriously love you all for doing it. When I did my homophobia piece on the Big K a few weeks ago, some of the conversations I participated in EXHAUSTED me. I don't know how you deal with it day in and day out. I get a taste of that from seeing my wife and her social justice efforts, but the Battlefield 3 article was my first really concentrated blast of it.

    My hat is off to you, and all your writers and editors. You have my deepest respects, more so since I published that piece. Ye Gods. There be dragons, as Kate likes to say...