The Trouble With We Men

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“Videogames are sexist” passes over my ears no different than “the sky is blue.” It’s obvious. But given the strident hostility towards the women combating sexism (most famously, Anita Sarkeesian) it seems that sometimes the obvious is invisible. And as the industry falls over backwards to laud “next-gen” tech and preview the umpteenth iteration of ‘man kills X number of people to achieve Y goal,’ Sarkeesian and other bloggers have begun connecting the industry’s creative stagnation with its distressing bond to sexism. Transitioning to the “next generation” doesn’t mean “adding more pixels” it means evolving equity, accountability and inclusiveness. Gamers, men specifically, rejecting these changes only impede the medium’s progress, adding to its troubles by unwittingly encouraging a misogynist industry debased by the very men playing its games.

Blogger Maddy Myers discusses this misogynist climate in what is perhaps the best take on Anita Sarkeesian and the Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames series. While Myers does capitulate to criticisms of Sarkeesian and the series to a degree, the crux of the article is recognition of “how difficult it is just to bear continuing to exist online” as an outspoken woman in hostile, male-dominated spaces. Myers writes “we see systemic, viral criticisms of female writers like Sarkeesian far more often than of their male counterparts. I cannot think of a hate campaign of a male writer that approaches what has happened to women writers, bloggers, and critics.” These cases are not isolated incidents but a pattern of behavior that unfortunately, many feminists have come to expect. As feminist blogger Lauren Rankin writes: “It’s frustrating to know that no matter how well-researched a piece, no matter how many facts we have to back up our assertions, no matter how clear the injustices are, feminists will have to wade through the ever-pervasive misogynistic and derogatory fodder that constantly follows us.”

This fodder not only normalizes misogynist hostility but impedes the dignity, legitimacy and maturity as a medium the industry has fought for. Maturity demands accountability. As researcher Daniel Greenberg said in The Atlantic: “We, the gaming community, need…to demonstrate how seriously we take not just our rights but also our responsibilities to society. We need to talk about pro-social games…” We don’t need any more grittiness or edginess or any of the other buzzword conventions we saw ad-nauseum at E3. And recently, including these conventions runs the risk rolling back onto the same lazy misogyny.  Unfortunately, the project of social accountability is stalled by lazy, sexist ‘ad-feminem’ attacks that bypass structural critique for personal attacks on the women offering them.

Anita Sarkeesian and the Tropes Vs. Women in Videogames series

But what about the men?  Yes, men do speak out against the sexism in the industry and even receive hateful attacks as well – consider Sam Killermann and Gaming Against Bigotry. But the undue authority of male privilege means that men arguing similar points as women face much less harsh scrutiny. In an interview with Gaming As Women, Destructoid editor Jim Sterling said that when commenting on sexism within the industry, “The worst I get is an accusation or two and the obligatory reminder that I’m a fat f— … far better than consistent hate campaigns and utterly vile personal attacks and threats. Whenever I do a video on sexism, at least one comment will always be congratulating me on how better than [Sarkeesian] I was. There’s an obsession with her, and I don’t understand it. ” As punishment for resisting the institutional status quo of sexism, men must endure trolling; women, terrorism.

That criticism of misogyny is met only with even more vitriol is symptomatic of a larger devaluation of women within the industry and the culture at large. Emphasizing the gender-specificity of these “hate campaigns” allows us to comprehend the totality of misogyny in the industry:  from gaming’s complicity in rape culture, to the dismissal of women as “real” consumers to the devaluation of women who produce videogames to the abhorrent hostility towards the women who speak out against how entrenched in patriarchy this industry has become. Make no mistake, women in this industry are under attack by men who detract from the very criticism that can evolve the medium.

And from men like me. Which is difficult to admit; I’m a man, not a troll. I constantly write about gender and misogyny in the culture. I follow progressive blogs, praise sexual diversity and laud feminist studies. But feminists know to be wary of men hiding behind the “ally” distinction (too often they only detract from women’s voices) and in making it such a point to distinguish myself from the trolls, I realize I’m tacitly utilizing their fallacy. Women forward a structural critique of the industry, only to have it torn down by personal attacks. And when I encounter a structural critique targeted at men, I similarly re-emphasize onto the personal (my support of feminism) to dismiss my own complicity in institutional sexism. In designating myself as “different” from the trolls, I created a “good guys/bad guys” dichotomy: sexism is what they do. I don’t participate in hate campaigns or demand women prove their nerd-cred. I don’t contribute to sexism in the videogame industry. This is a dangerously myopic take on sexism that only perpetuates it. And something I’ve sadly seen before among men tackling sexism in the industry. Slate’s  Chris Kirk said “A great deal of us are tolerant individuals who just want to be left alone to kill aliens in peace. But I also know that among us lurks a mass of cads who use the anonymity of the Internet to harass female players.”

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The abject horror of the internet troll.

Sexism is not solely the prerogative of comment box cowards, nor is it limited to harassing women online. To perpetuate sexism in videogame culture, I need only contribute, wittingly or no, to the existent hegemonic status quo. And as a male in a male dominated space, I always already am. Even when speaking out against misogyny, my ethos is strengthened by a status quo that privileges and overvalues me(n). I may not be culpable for the targeting of Anita Sarkeesian, Leigh Alexander, Maddy Myers or Patricia Hernandez or dozens of other women but as a man, but I am always accountable.

Because even feeling comfortable and secure enough to challenge sexism is a privilege. As a hegemonic culture, empowering women – either female gamers or their virtual counterparts – disturbs gaming spaces because these spaces are not just for men; they’re for men to the exclusion of women. The erroneous and juvenile cops vs. robbers dichotomy is founded on the belief that only some actions are gendered and only some actions either perpetuate or resist the status quo. This is false. Our every action is gendered and by making sexism what “they” do, I’m omitting how power and privilege dictates my every act. Yes, every act. Yes, even nerd-raging over DLC or your favorite game’s release date. Every action.

Consider this: In a recent episode of his “Jimquistion” series, Sterling examined a distressing trend in game design and marketing, arguing “there’s a difference between a game being designed to be fun and then using that fun to appeal to gamers and a game cynically, coldly designed simply to sell copies to reach an audience and nothing else.”  The primary difference is the answer to the question: “Does a game care about your enjoyment after you’ve bought a game, or does it just care that you bought it?” Increasingly, it turns out, the latter, with serious repercussions for gender relations. Remember that games, like any text, have a wide variety of possible readings and for games this is compounded by their interactivity. However, this “mass appeal” paradigm has created a design template which privileges a certain set of readings, features and ways to interact with the medium. The implementation of this template is obvious to players, who as Sterling describes, “can tell the difference between something made with genuine heart like The Last of Us and something made by ticking boxes on a…12 year olds [chart] like Resident Evil 6.” However, this template is created in the image of exclusionary male biases with largely unquestioned control of the development process. Even in a game made with “heart.” There is certainly nothing new about marketing or focus-testing, but Sterling’s video highlights how explicitly reflexive the relationship between gamers and developers have become. The problematic elements in one reflect onto the other, resulting in a Pong-style cyclical masculinization and exclusion.

Joel, Ellie, Marlene and Tess in “The Last of Us”

Have you noticed how games seem to be getting more conservative even as the calls for diversity and change get louder? Starry-eyed by the bombastic sales of hyper-masculine games like Call of Duty, the industry appropriates this machismo into their games.  The “mass-appeal” complex, dismissing the full potential of interactivity of videogame in lieu of  a clinically business-minded appraisal of what sells, sees the violence, the misogyny, the overwhelming whiteness, etc. and creates games with these conventions embedded in the design template. These problematic design conventions are then normalized, becoming ubiquitous and invisible fixtures of the industry. And so when women, already outsiders to this industry, question these conventions, they are misinterpreted as attacking the medium itself, as the conventions have become so normalized they are not readily divorced from games. Thus as the gaming spaces shaping the discourse become more exclusionary and masculine, developers further masculinize the template, which is then reflected onto our spaces and in turn back onto our games.  The games become more hegemonically masculine, the industry becomes more hegemonically masculine, the online spaces become more hegemonically masculine. All for the bottom dollar.

And that’s the trouble with we men. There’s a disconnect wherein players see the industry as a boy’s club “community,” while developers see a business and translate the problematic cultural paradigms of race, gender, into the products. This “community” perspective is the origin of the “it’s just a game” branch of shirking accountability.  The “trouble” is as long as misogyny, racism, etc. are acceptable within the “community” our industry will reflect that. The logic is: I’m a part of the community, not the industry. This isn’t my fault – I shouldn’t be accountable. But our industry is as we made it. Institutional misogyny comes from a male-dominated industry reflecting and reproducing its own anxieties about women. For profit. And I don’t have to be a “bad guy” to support this – inaction is tacit acceptance. And that’s why men’s every action is part of this process and requires accountability. I urge men to consider the totality of sexism in the industry while they reflect on their role in ending institutional misogyny. Understand the connection between gender-conscious articles, in-game sexism and the mass-appeal-machine. Well, no – first things first – don’t be a jerk and threaten women with death or rape. Seriously. And remember while no one is blaming you personally for the sexism in the industry, if you truly love this industry, you have a duty to question its complacency. It’s not enough not to be a troll, gentlemen.  We need to be men.

And that’s a big step. Primarily, it means some hard reflection. As blogger and critic Chris Franklin tweeted “If you really think games just need a functional [sic] review of mechanics/stability then you strictly view games as product & I feel sorry for you.” We men need to divorce ourselves from all the mental shortcuts of “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s not our fault.” These are more than just games. And we all know that. These dismissals impede the progress of the medium and betray our discussions of games’ evolution and potential as art. My hope is that openly discussing the full scope of institutional misogyny will create an environment of accountability which in turn will create socially conscious games. As collective calls for diversity begin to have more impact in the industry, the dialectic relationship can be utilized for open, pro-social dialogues (not templates) that transform games and propel the industry into the “next” generation of accountability, social consciousness and equity.

About Sidney Fussell

Sidney Fussell is a 24 year old freelance writer, occasional stand-up comedian and fulltime gamer whose research topics include intersections of race and gender, violence, dismantling compulsory heterosexuality, mental health and humor. His personal site and nom de plume is Sangfroid Fussell.
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  • ZephyrSP

    I feel guilty so often. I feel guilty for being a man, for liking games and shows and movies that include some form of sexism – which as you’ve pointed out is so ingrained that it’s almost everywhere. I feel guilty for not being outspoken enough. What is my responsibility? How do I live with this guilt? If its not enough to approve of efforts for diversity and equality by voicing that support on Twitter or Facebook, and buying media that exemplify those efforts, then what should I do? Stop buying all games? Stop watching movies and TV shows? Start a well-written blog like yours? Dedicate myself to spending my time arguing with people, as many brave people of both genders do on Twitter and blogs? I don’t know if I have the fortitude for it. To be unhappy and angry at society, sick as it may be, so much of the time. I don’t want my complacency to be part of the problem, but how can I avoid it? I don’t ask these things sarcastically. I ask them in despair.

    • csandel

      Nobody is asking for your guilt. Your guilt will not rebuild bridges or heal wounds. Your guilt won’t rid you of your privilege; nothing will. But privilege is not the same as wrong action, and owning it is part of living with it. One thing that should both humble you and give you hope is that this is not about you.
      I’m not saying that no one cares about how you feel, I’m saying that the system that lifts you up and lets you ignore privilege is the thing that’s harming other people, not you personally. Yes, you can take actions that perpetuate that system, and pretending that the system doesn’t exist is such an action.
      But working against it is often just pointing out that it’s there. You don’t have to give up all problematic things. It’s okay to like problematic things. But POINT THEM OUT. Acknowledge the system, acknowledge the harm. Acknowledge that busted stuff is busted, and that you want it to go away. Listen to what marginalized people have to say about that busted stuff.

      In the end, nobody needs you to say “I feel bad about this stuff” to be an ally. Because it’s not about you. It’s about the stuff.

      • csandel

        (note: obviously this is a simplification. Being an ally means CONSTANTLY learning and admitting that you ain’t shit, and it requires call-outs and action and more than that. But it doesn’t require guilt or self-abasement. That stuff doesn’t help.)

        • Jonscribe

          ZephyrSP ––– I agree with what both Meg and csandel have said already. Don’t feel guilty about your male privilege; use it to be an ally to others and call out the bullshit which is usually obvious. You can’t escape your privilege because we live in a culture that is, in many ways, sexist, racist, transphobic, etc. at its foundations. In my view the other part of your responsibility is not necessarily to stop buying games and other media that bear any traces of sexism (or any other -ism). Rather, try taking some time to reflect on what “being a man” means to you in relation to games and gaming culture. How do you immediately feel when you read an article like this? If you feel guilty for being a man in relation to these issues, why might that be? Do you, for example, laugh at and pass along misogynistic jokes from other gamers without thinking about their cost? Do you feel personally attacked whenever someone says the gaming industry is sexist and can be an unsafe and unpleasant space for women? If so, ask why might that be, and ask what’s to be gained by you and other men by feeling that way? Do you define yourself as a man in relation to having been hurt or belittled by other men, either inside or outside gaming spaces? I don’t know you at all, so please take these examples as suggestions based on my own experiences. Mulling over these things can help you figure out where you stand as a man in relation to these issues. Speaking from my own experiences, this may help you see more clearly all the little things (speaking up, thinking about what you say and do and how it might be read, talking back to the games and media that you love) that you can do to help.

          There are increasingly more and more articles, sites, and resources which you can use to learn how to ask the right questions and offer the appropriate kind of help to the people to whom you want to be an ally. Yes, it’s work. However, it can lighten the load for people who have to constantly explain to men why their unchecked privilege is so often a problem.

  • Meg Townsend

    So you’re so filled with despair that you do nothing? Try speaking out when your friends say sexist things. It’s not hard.

    Also, your frustration with misogyny probably only dimly reflects those of us who are victims of us. Don’t lament the effort it takes to be an ally. Just be an ally.

  • Jonscribe

    I’d like to build upon one aspect of this article (great discussion starter, Sidney!). I think another side of this (broad) issue is to question why, in much of these kinds of discussions, there’s a generalized identity called “men” that is taken to be self-evident. The same kinds of privilege which create and perpetuate gaming spaces as spaces “for men to the exclusion of women,” allow broader cultural misogyny to become a part of the gaming space. The kinds of privilege which can make the gaming community an unsafe place for women-identified individuals also works by creating limits on how self-identified men within it can see themselves in relation to it as well. I can’t speak for others, but it’s insulting to see how games and gaming culture so readily perpetuate the same generalized idea of what “men” are and can be, and how often those ideas are then used for misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, and racist ends. I identify as both a male-embodied person *and* as someone who likes games. Neither category can sum up in a tidy label who I am. There’s a problem in my mind when people are unwilling to question generalized categories like “men” and “gamer” and how they are used to not only place limits on those who accept them but also to outright attack and hurt others in our communities.

    • Sidney!

      Great comment, Jon. And I agree – treating “men/women/female/male”
      as static is certainly reductive and problematic. I think collapsing the
      gender spectrum into rigid categories removes, like you said, the
      nuanced and complex ways people of varying identities can relate to
      notions of accountability, complicity, etc. and may even prove
      counterproductive to an overall project of social accountability by
      making us consider these notions too myopically, glossing over solutions that can only arise by considering the myriad intersections of gender fluidity and complicity in perpetuating misogyny.

      I certainly capitulated (to use a certain word) to problematic, overly
      simplified language. That said, I think your comment speaks to an idea
      probably only implicitly stated in the article – that the “rules” for
      any identity come down to INcluding X and EXcluding Y. For example:
      “male.” Such that the industry is “male” dominated, these rules of
      exclusion are re-created in the creation/maintenance of the industry as
      the industry *itself* becomes appropriated into the maintenance of the
      “male” identity, hence the Boy’s Club-ness of the mainstream industry.

      I think you’re totally right to destabilize the “male” identity, to wrest
      those rules of exclusion away and erode (to an extent) its power as an
      exclusionary force – the symptoms of which we see in the horrible
      attempts to control/demean/expel women. Borrowing from Butler, the
      reason for these strident defenses in maintenance of the “male” identity
      is because of the acute awareness of its malleability.

      Playing into this illusion of stable gender identity is again (!), using the
      “bad guys” fallacy. You’re right to call me out on it! I’ll be sure to
      remember to importance of gender fluidity in future writings. :)

      • Jonscribe

        It actually wasn’t my intention to “call you out” on anything, Sidney. I thought this article was an important one, and I assumed that its message was a purposefully chosen use of rhetoric. I saw it as providing me with a ready trampoline off of which to bounce my contribution to its message. Hopefully my comment didn’t come off as a harsh criticism. Thanks for your detailed and considered reply :) .

  • http://drayfish.wordpress.com/ drayfish

    While I sympathise with where this article is coming from, I must say, I completely agree with Meg Townsend and a number of the other commenters here that there is an uncomfortably defeatist quality to some of this argument – a fear of perpetuating some patriarchal system so paralysing that amounts to nothing more than frustrated apathy: Women are treated poorly, but what right do I have to say anything, since I am a man, and therefore part of the problem?

    Calling out others (whether they be content-producers, fans, critics, or just raving, scorn-filled maniacs) for being misogynistic or bigoted is not the same as ordering your date’s meal for her before she’s even read the menu. If you are male, and you see obvious bias or injustice, I would hope that it is your responsibility as a human being (not just a creature with a Y chromosome) to vocalise why such mindless prejudice is corrosive and vile. That is not taking power away from women, or belittling their right to voice their justified outrage – it is adding support to a pursuit for equality that deserves all the volume it can muster.

    Wringing one’s hands and lamenting that as a male life dealt you a pretty sweet hand of privilege is not only unhelpful, it is indulgent.* Yes, there is still gender inequality – not only in the games industry, but in film, in politics, in academia, in the workforce (…hell, someone floated the idea that Doctor Who might regenerate into a female and people flipped out). It is unfair, utterly arbitrary, and remains the lingering product of men dictating the rules of the game for far too long.

    But much as you land on at the end of your article, open discussion is the only hope for dissolving such entrenched injustices. Just as sunlight is the best disinfectant, keeping these realities in the forefront of our minds and conversation is far more productive than hiding them away behind some overcompensatory fear that as a man you will overstep our privilege if you tell another man to stop behaving like a jackass.

    As human beings that is the responsibility of every one of us – male, female, black, white, young, old, Doctor Who fan, worthless scum with no taste – and the duty that we owe to each other as a community.

    * I say ‘You’, but of course, I don’t mean you personally.

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