Posts Tagged ‘Games’

Yesterday, a woman by the name of Gabrielle Toledano – evidently a human resources manager for EA games – wrote a rather confusing and deeply problematic op-ed for Forbes outlining why, in her estimation, sexism isn’t responsible for the dearth of women in gaming. To quote her opening remarks:

 It’s easy to blame men for not creating an attractive work environment – but I think that’s a cop-out.  If we want more women to work in games, we have to recognize that the problem isn’t sexism.

…The issue I have is that the video game industry is being painted as more sexist than other male-dominated workforces.  I know sexism exists, but the issue isn’t just in video games.  And it’s not what’s holding us back.

Nonetheless, there are still too few women working in my company, so it’s clear there is an issue to fix. Rather than blame the majority just because they are the majority, I believe the solution starts with us – women.

Which is, frankly, one of the most flippant, useless and blithely ignorant summaries of the problem I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. For one thing, Toledano manages to contradict herself magnificently within the space of three paragraphs: because surely if sexism exists in gaming – which, as she plainly admits, it does – then it must constitute at least a part of the reason why women are so conspicuously absent. Instead of conceding this point even slightly, however, she dismisses it out of hand, and for no better reason than her dislike of the implication that gaming might be more sexist than other industries. This, at least, is a reasonable point: game developers are hardly alone when it comes to dealing with sexism, which problem is self-evidently one that affects the whole of society to varying degrees. But to say – and worse, to say casually – that such sexism as does exist in gaming must necessarily be either benign or irrelevant simply because it exists more prominently elsewhere, or because the extent of the problem is popularly overstated, is as irresponsible as it is inaccurate. This blithe attempt to handwave a serious problem is further compounded by Toledano’s assertion that sexism effectively constitutes “blaming the majority just because they are the majority”, a sentence nobody could write without having first elected to ignore the glaringly obvious: that the majority isn’t being blamed for being the majority, but for maintaining a culture of prejudicial dominance, whether due to ignorance, malice, laziness or a combination of all three. To summarise Toledano’s argument, then: sexism exists in gaming, but doesn’t impact negatively on women, because criticism of the majority is really only resentment of their status as the majority, and therefore disconnected from any rational complaint about their actions.


What, then, does Toledano see as the root cause of female under-representation in gaming? Her argument comes as a triptych: firstly, that female gamers have failed to identify themselves as such (which is both ludicrous and insulting); secondly, that the industry wants to hire more women (though how this admission constitutes a reason for their absence is anyone’s guess); and thirdly, that there aren’t enough women to hire (which is a partial explanation for her second point, but which nonetheless doesn’t explain why there are fewer female STEM graduates to begin with, which point she glosses over with a simple call for their being more widely encouraged).

Her closing remarks only serve to cement her total misunderstanding of the problem:

If women don’t join this industry because they believe sexism will limit them, they’re missing out.  The sky is the limit when it comes to career opportunities for women (and men) in games. If we want the tide to turn and the ratio of men to women to really change then we need to start making women realize that fact…

Sexism is an unfortunate reality of our times, but as women we must seek the power and ability in ourselves to change the dynamic.  Cast aside the preconceptions, and look for the opportunities and places to make an impact.  And I can tell you firsthand that in the video game industry women are not just welcome, we are necessary and we are equal.

From beginning to end, the piece reads as an oversimplified, insipidly cheerful and woefully pat exhortation for women to simply wade on in – you’ve only yourselves to blame if you don’t! Sexism exists, but you can overcome it with gumption and elbow grease! Follow your hearts, my darlings! Follow your star! Never mind that Toledano offers not one single fact in support of her claim that sexism isn’t so much as a tiny part of the problem despite acknowledging its existence, nor cites any specific policy, testimony or other useful data that might bolster her argument. Neither does she respond to the wealth of evidence and arguments which directly contradict it, despite linking to an article which lays out a detailed opposing case; instead, she leaves it totally unaddressed. Add these deficiencies to the self-contradictory and wholly unsupported nature of her assertions, and it’s hard not to wonder if her belief in the benevolent non-existence/unimportance of sexism as a factor stems entirely from not having experienced it herself, or from believing such sexism as she has experienced to have had no detrimental effect on either her wellbeing or career. That, of course, is only conjecture on my part; but if untrue, the only viable alternative would seem to be that, having suffered sexism in the past but subsequently overcome it, Toledano has elected to use her own success as a yardstick against which to gauge the determination and worthiness of every other woman in her industry, which is hardly reasonable. Whatever the case, the implication is equally unsatisfying: that as sexism hasn’t impeded her, it must therefore be incapable of impeding anyone else.

Allow me, then, to provide the evidence that Toledano does not. In November last year, under the Twitter hashtag #1reasonwhy, women employed in gaming collectively shared the myriad instances of sexism they experienced at work in order to highlight the extent of the problem, with multiple accompanying conversations about problems in the industry following soon after. Around the same time, a Penny Arcade report based on actual data showed how the dearth of games starring female protagonists has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: such games, it was found, were given smaller budgets by publishers and marketed far less extensively than their male-lead counterparts, leading to critical neglect and low sales, and therefore contributing to the outdated notion that women don’t play games, and as such aren’t a viable demographic. There’s any number of prominent accounts of women in gaming being dismissed or discriminated against on the basis of gender; this Christmas, headlines were made by the presence of topless women at Gameloft’s holiday party; and though they point more to problems in the culture of game consumption than creation, it would be foolish to view either the infamous Aris Bakhtanians incident or the experiences of Anita Sarkeesian as irrelevant. As for the comparative absence of women in STEM fields, this is hardly a problem without a cause: brogrammer culture, entrenched academic gender bias and subconscious bias in hiring practices, to name just three of the major issues, all affect female participation.

Because what Toledano fails to comprehend is that gaming, like everything else, is an ecosystem – and right now, at every single level of participation, women are feeling the effects of sexism. Female gamers are sexualised, demeaned and assumed to be fakes by their male counterparts; those who go into STEM fields despite this abuse frequently find themselves stifled by the sexist assumptions of professors and fellow students alike; they must then enter an industry whose creative output is overwhelmingly populated with hypersexualised depictions of women and male-dominant narratives, and where the entrenched popularity of these tropes means their own efforts to counteract the prevailing culture will likely put them at odds with not only their colleagues, but also the business models of the companies and projects for which they work; as the #1reasonwhy discussion showed, many will experience sexism in the workplace – hardly surprising, given the academic correlation between the acceptance of misogyny in humour and culture and real-world tolerance for sexism and rape culture – while others will be excluded from it completely. All this being so, therefore, if a single progressive HR manager at a comparatively progressive company looks around and finds, despite her very best intentions that, there are few or no women to hire for a particular position, then the problem is not with women for failing to take advantage of a single company’s benevolent practices, but with the industry as a whole for failing to create a culture in which women are welcome, and where they might therefore be reasonably expected to abound.

In her excellent book Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine documents a phenomenon whereby some progressive parents, determined to counteract the sexist influences of prevailing culture, found themselves adopting a ‘biology as fallback’ position when, despite their best efforts at promoting equality, their children still conformed to gender norms. “Believing that they practiced gender-neutral parenting,” Fine writes, “biology was the only remaining explanation.” But as she goes on to point out, the actual explanation is far more complex: not only were such parents still prone to promoting unconsciously absorbed gender roles, but when ranged against the ubiquitous sexism promoted by wider culture, even their best efforts were overwhelmed in the child’s experience – no matter how many pink clothes and dolls a son was bought, if the majority of his peers were playing with trucks and dressing in blue, and if every presentation of normalcy he absorbed through stories, clothing, culture, advertising and other children suggested he should do likewise, then his experiences at home would still read as anomalous. Unable to accept this, however, parents persisted in blaming biology: their failure could only have been predestined, and not the result of wider social and cultural factors beyond their individual control, let alone indicative of a flaw in their methods.

Toledano, it seems to me, is committing a similar fallacy, adopting a fallback belief in female disinterest in order to explain the lack of women in gaming, and thereby discounting the impact of more pervasive and difficult issues, never mind her use of faulty logic. And the thing is, it matters: not just because of her status as a representative of a major gaming company writing in a prominent publication, and not just because it betrays exactly the sort of misunderstanding of sexism that inevitably helps it perpetuate itself; but because she’s created a cop-out piece for sexists and those who doubt their influence to wave about as definitive proof that really, the problem is women themselves – and, more specifically, feminist women, or women who demand change. By claiming to speak definitively on the matter – unveiling the “dirty little secrets” of women in gaming, to use her phrase, as though she’s boldly daring the wrath of some secret feminist conspiracy in order to say openly what sensible women have always known in private, but been too scared to admit in public  – Toledano is using the supposed authority of her gender to claim, on the basis of not a single shred of evidence, that sexism isn’t an obstacle, because look! Here she is, a woman, admitting as much! And if a woman says it, it must be true! Which is, presumably, why she’s felt no need to sully her case by supporting it with facts; because surely, the act of merely presenting it must be evidence enough. Only, no, that’s not how it works. To modify a Biblical phrase, the greatest trick the patriarchy ever pulled was convincing women it didn’t exist – and in Toledano’s case, all too lamentably, it seems to have succeeded.

Slightly more than 24 hours after my post on rape culture in gaming was posted, I moved house, a process which involved disconnecting my internet (the connection at the new place won’t be up again until the 25th), driving eight hours down from north-east Scotland to south-west England, lugging all our possessions up thirty-eight steps, and then unpacking them while my husband (who did all of the driving and most of the lugging) collapsed in an exhausted heap, in which recumbent posture I joined him several hours later, once the house was (mostly) assembled. The next day – that is, Wednesday – I woke up late, put away our remaining possessions, and then headed out to join the local library, primarily because I like libraries, but also – it must be said – to gain access to their free internet. When last I’d checked, the post had been viewed about fifty times and had two comments, so as I logged on at the library, it didn’t really occur to me that anything might have happened in the less-than-forty hours I’d been offline.

And then I opened my gmail, Twitter, tumblr, and WordPress, and saw that everything had exploded.

I’m still sort of stunned by how much attention the piece has received. Had I been online as the comments started coming in, I would have been replying to them in real-time; and even yesterday, if I’d been on any other computer than one with a user time-limit whose only browser was a version of Internet Explorer so scabrous and ancient that WordPress kept telling me to update it, I might’ve still tried to clear the backlog. But circumstances being what they are, that wasn’t really an option, and so (to cut a long story short) I’ve decided to reply to various points that were raised in comments here. The reason I’m taking the time to explain this decision is that the points in question are objections to my thesis, viz: that rape culture exists in gaming, and while I can’t control what people think, I’d like it to at least be on the record that this isn’t an attempt to stop debate, or to avoid having direct conversations with commenters, or anything like that: it’s just that, as my internet access will be unusually limited for the next week and a half, it seems more expedient to reply en masse rather than individually. However: given the extent to which the original piece has seemingly resonated with people, it might also be of value to have all my extended thoughts on the matter ready and accessible as a single post, rather than scattered disparately throughout a comment-thread.

So, with all that in mind: there seem to be three main objections to the assertion that rape culture exists in gaming, all of which are deserving of attention, and which I’ll respond to  here.

1.’Gaming doesn’t have a rape culture – it’s just that some gamers happen to be terrible people already.’

Let’s say you’re a high school teacher at a school where a lot of the kids, for whatever reason, have serious behavioural and authority issues. Lots of rule-breaking, absenteeism, verbal abuse, violence; that sort of thing. Now, it’s certainly fair to say that you, as a teacher, didn’t create those issues – but how you deal with them still matters. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that your responsibilities are greater towards these students than to those with fewer or no issues. For as long as they remain at your school, it’s within your power to help them – or, conversely, to make them worse, whether through neglect, poor management of their issues, or active endorsement of their most problematic behaviours. And if your attitude is to shrug as though these kids have nothing to do with you, your school or its policies – if you don’t bother to understand or educate them beyond the absolute minimum, or if you selectively decide they don’t really belong to your school because you’d rather they didn’t – then chances are, your actions fall into the latter category. And at that point, if people see your kids wrecking up the joint or behaving badly, then they’re going to consider that you’ve failed in your duty of care; but more to the point, they’re also going to associate the actions of those kids with the culture at your school – and in both cases, they’ll be right to do so.

Or, to put it another way: everyone comes from somewhere, and nobody gets screwed up in a vacuum. Every culture has negative elements to balance out the positive, just as every culture cannot help but impact on its participants. Only very, very rarely do terrible people just spring up from the ground like fully-fledged horror movie psychopaths, absorbing nothing that might contradict their primary urges: the rest of the time, we live in a state of mental give and take. So even if, by some incredible fluke of statistics, every single gamer who acts like a sexist, misogynistic asshole already was one prior to their discovery of gaming, it seems incredibly unrealistic to assume that gaming culture then procedes to exert no influence over those people whatsoever. In some cases, I’d suggest, native sexism and misogyny – to say nothing of general assholishness – are doubtless amplified by exposure to an online culture that’s rife with sexist, racist, homophobic and abusive language, and which graphically sexualises women a default setting. Or, here’s another question: why do so many assholes enjoy gaming? Invariably, assholes crop up in every social context from knitting circles to pro wrestling, but if the contention is that all the terrible sexism and rape culture in gaming comes from people who were already like that beforehand (which presumably excludes anyone who got into gaming as a child, unless we’re saying that adult sexism is genetically predetermined) – and if these assholes are loud and passionate enough to give confused readings about the state of gaming culture as a whole – then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to wonder: what is it about gaming that attracted all these sexist, misogynistic adults in the first place?

More pertinently still, the origin of the bad elements in a culture is irrelevant to the ability of those elements to affect and change that culture. So even if all the asshole gamers were like that before they discovered gaming, that certainly doesn’t prevent them from remaking gaming culture in their own image, or distorting it, or ruining it for other people. Cultures aren’t static: they exist in flux, and it’s extremely important to note that even people who start out with positive values can start to change when faced with a different social paradigm. To quote one of the papers I referenced in the original post, Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace:

“…individuals (married to a woman not employed) whose behaviors were atypical for their gender ideology (e.g., egalitarianism) would shift their ideology in a direction more consistent with their behavior (e.g., a woman’s place is in the home)… when individuals occupy roles inconsistent with their gender attitudes, they adjust their attitudes to match their behaviors. Such results are consistent with findings in psychology that “dissonance” (e.g., Festinger, 1957) results whenever one’s behavior violates some self-standard (e.g., one’s gender ideology) (Stone & Cooper, 2001) and that such dissonance can result in attitude change (Cooper, 2011).”

In a nutshell: when people with egalitarian beliefs regularly engage in non-egalitarian activities, they unconsciously start to adopt less egalitarian attitudes which then translate to a change in their actual beliefs. So: given that the depictions of women in video games is highly sexualised, deeply stereotyped and frequently negative – and given also that sexist insults are commonplace in what are often male-only or male-dominated gaming environments – it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that, regardless of their intentions, some gamers are being coerced into ignoring or supporting sexism and rape culture as normative, simply through prolonged exposure to it as a normative social framework. And like it or not, that does reflect on gaming culture as a whole, because a healthy culture would work the other way, altering the attitudes of sexists for the better rather than changing egalitarians for the worse.

2. ‘Blaming rape culture for gamers who behave badly towards women is like blaming Islam for Muslims who are terrorists – you’re just falling back on negative, blanket stereotypes as a way to demonise a whole culture! Stop tarring us all with the same brush!’

 This is an accusation I take seriously, because I’m not trying to stereotype anyone; nor am I trying to say that gaming culture is some sort of closed ecosystem that can be held wholly and exclusively responsible for its own flaws. As stated in the previous point, everyone comes from somewhere, and these days, it’s comparatively rare for any one person to be the product of just one culture. Our experience of ‘culture’ is more akin to being the smallest nesting doll in a matryoshka set than to being shepherded by a single colossus, and ultimately, gaming is a subculture: a specific, blurrily-defined aspect of something larger that both contains its own subsets and overlaps with other aspects and subcultures. So when I said, in my previous piece, that we’re not wrong to ask about the presence of rape culture in gaming if and when gamers behave in a particular negative way, that’s not the same thing as saying that the most defining and significant aspect of gaming is its relationship with rape culture. There is, I think, a fundamental and important difference between investigating why a representative of a particular group would undertake a particular action in order to understand what relationship, if any, exists between the motive for the action and the logic of the group itself, and assuming – as stereotype does – that any member of that group would naturally perform such an action in accordance with group logic, because the necessary motive is both innately possessed by and requisite for its members. Or, to put it another way: inquiring how a footballer might have been influenced by rape culture is not the same thing as saying that all footballers are necessarily rapists, or that they commit rape because they’re footballers, or are footballers because they’re rapists; it’s just acknowledging that, in some instances, there’s a relevant correlation between our actions and the culture that surrounds us.

Which brings me back to the nesting doll concept of culture: because gaming, as I’ve said, is ultimately only an aspect of wider culture, and wider culture – however you want to define it – has an ongoing problem with sexism, misogyny and violence against women. The accusation of participation in a rape culture is not unique to gaming, and nor have its consequences happened in isolation. Subcultures are no more created in a vacuum than people are, and anyone who concludes that gaming has a problem with rape culture because it’s somehow necessarily and innately rapey is missing the point that wider culture is what gave birth to gaming. The hypersexualisation in games is not a separate issue to the hypersexualisation of women in movies and other media, because sexism and misogyny are pan-cultural problems. As I said earlier, it doesn’t matter where gamers got their sexism before they became gamers – it’s our collective responsibility to not be sexist anywhere, and that means creating a gaming culture where rape threats, misogynistic abuse and casual sexism are not only unwelcome, but actively called out as wrong.

3. ‘But guys cop insults in gaming, too!’

Let’s say you’re walking down the street, and you come across someone who’s clearly just been beaten up – black eye, bloody nose, split lip – and is telling anyone who’ll listen that they suffer such beatings regularly, but that the police refuse to press charges against their assailant, because the attacks aren’t deemed severe enough. Say you stop to talk to this person: if the first words out of your mouth are, ‘But why are you complaining? I got beaten up once, too – it’s just something that happens, and you should learn to deal with it,’ then congratulations! You are officially an asshole.

This is called derailing, a term which is often used to explain why countering complaints of abuse with assertions that the abuse is normative or unimportant is a bad thing to do, but which many people seem to not understand. Abuse is never acceptable, but the fact that you’ve suffered it too doesn’t mean your interlocutor doesn’t have a point, and if someone is telling you about a bad thing that’s happening to them, it’s a catastrophic failure of empathy to instantly change the subject from their pain to yours, particularly if you do so in a way that suggests their pain is lesser or ultimately unimportant. It’s also important to note that not all abuse is the same: that it doesn’t always happen for the same reasons, to the same degree and/or with the same frequency. In the above example, the person with the black eye is being attacked regularly, but nobody is doing anything about it. This is not a comparable situation to being beaten up once; and if, as the metaphor is trying to suggest, the other person is being targeted by a specific type of assailant for a particular reason – such as, for instance, their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation – then this is certainly not the same as you getting into a fight with someone because of an intellectual or competitive disagreement.

So, yes: men get insulted in gaming, too! And that’s definitely an issue. But if you really care about the issue of abuse in gaming, you should listen when someone else is telling you about their experiences, and be open to the fact that maybe, some people have it worse than you. Trying to conflate your own experiences with those of someone else or declare them universal is ultimately a form of silencing – a way of telling the victims to shut up. And if you really want to create an environment where abuse of any kind isn’t tolerated, then this is the last thing you should be doing.

About a week ago, I wrote a post on Penny Arcade vs. Rape Culture, which sent my blog traffic skyrocketing after it was linked on Reddit. However, both in comments on the post itself and elsewhere on Reddit, quite a few people seemed to be missing the point: or, more specifically, misunderstanding what rape culture actually is and how it applies to gaming. One commenter, in fact, responded thusly:

My mind is boggled that you feel righteous in condemning something people enjoy, especially when it’s not even real. Do you realize that’s what you’re doing? You’re standing up and telling all these people, people you don’t know, that what they’re enjoying is *wrong*. You don’t have numbers or statistics or any sort of fact behind you quantifying how what they do is wrong. None. Telling people that what they enjoy in the privacy of their own homes in a virtual reality contributes to a Rape Culture is crazy. What’s next? Telling people what sort of porn they can watch, what sort of books they can read?

Seriously, show some facts. Show a concrete link between this and that, between playing the computer game and a rise in rape statistics. I know, I know, it’s not “Rape” it’s “Rape Culture”, so you conveniently don’t have to show *any* facts. Which is the one saving grace in all this. In the real world, for laws to pass and things to change, you have to show concrete evidence of your position. I remember how they tried to do that with Computer Games and Violence, and how no one was able to draw *any* sort of factual link between one and the other that would stand in any court of law.

Which is what made me decide that, rather than linking to any number of excellent rape culture 101 posts online, there might be a need for an explanation of rape culture tailored specifically to gaming. Because, let’s face it: gaming culture has so often been singled out by lazy politicians as the root cause of society’s ills – which is to say, as being inextricably bound up with violence, obesity, immaturity and so on – that it’s small wonder most gamers, on hearing it simultaneously accused of rape culture, are likely to roll their eyes. After all, those other accusations are only so much hot air, and tend to stem from a deeply prejudicial view of games and geekery besides – so why on Earth should rape culture be any different?

From the outset, we need to acknowledge something critical: that gaming is primarily a digital culture, and that digital cultures – while analogous in many ways to other cultures – happen in venues that lack a physical presence. Yes, there are gaming expos, conventions and tournaments where gamers come together, while many friends who meet up regularly IRL will also game together online or at lans. But the difference between gaming culture and, say, workplace culture is that the latter occurs primarily – if not exclusively – in a specific physical location inhabited by all the individual participants in that culture. What this means is that a Venn diagram of the overlap between social interactions, physical proximity and guiding culture for any given workplace would practically be a circle, as all three elements would, with very few exceptions, happen in the same space. But the same diagram of gaming culture would look drastically different: physical proximity would barely have any overlap with guiding culture and social interactions, which would themselves be separate, because proximity is a meaningless concept in digital environments, guiding culture doesn’t come from a single body but from multiple competing sources, and social interactions are less a byproduct of something else – like being at work – than they are a primary point of gaming.

And what this means for rape culture, which is a term we most often hear applied to cultures that do center on a physical environment – such as, for instance, sports clubs and fraternities – is that right from the offset, people are confused about how it can apply to digital environments in comparable ways. Because for both sports clubs and fraternities, rape is a significant problem; it is an actual, physical consequence that happens in the actual, physical environments associated with their cultures. Hardly a week goes by without some sporting hero somewhere being accused of rape or sexual assault, while the dangers faced by women at fraternity parties are a mainstay of both popular culture and popular knowledge. So when we talk about rape culture being promoted by this football club or that frathouse, we – very naturally, and very sensibly – tend to link the accusation with instances of rape being perpetrated by their members. But when the term is applied to something like gaming, there instantly seems to be a disconnect between the accusation and the reality, because barring conventions, tournaments etc, gaming lacks the physical spaces in which rape can actually take place. Which isn’t to say that sexual assault and rape never happen at cons or expos or tournaments; they do. But obviously, there’s a difference, because the primary mode of social interaction in gaming is digital – and how can you rape someone over the internet?

Which brings us back to the actual, proper definition of rape culture. Quoting from Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places For Women? by A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade (my emphasis):

“Rape culture is a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape… The term applies to a generic culture surrounding and promoting rape, not the specific setting in which rape is likely to occur.” 

In other words, rape culture refers neither to physical locations where rape is deemed likely to occur, does occur and/or has occurred, nor to the specific details of  particular rapes: rather, it refers to a culture – that is, a set of values, beliefs, rituals, social codes, language, laws and art – which can be said to promote sexual violence, and particularly sexual violence against women as perpetrated by straight men. Note that this argument neither automatically nor universally implies the existence of a direct causal link between specific cultural artifacts and incidences of rape (though this is certainly possible); nor does it contend that every participant in that culture is or must be a rapist. What it does describe is a culture where rape is trivialized, where both the abuse and sexual objectification of women is normalised, and where, as a result, the sexual abuse of women is more likely to happen. 

But – and I cannot state this emphatically enough – rape is not the sole expression of rape culture. The whole point of the term is that abuse of women doesn’t happen in a vacuum: other sexist, toxic social conditions have to be present first, and so long as these conditions remain unaltered, the abuse itself will continue. The fact that gaming exists largely outside physical spaces isn’t a get out of jail free card; it just means that in the case of digital expressions of rape culture, we have to get ourselves out of the mindset that rape is the only consequence that matters – or, worse still, that unless rape happens, the accusation of rape culture is somehow bunk. Culture is what informs our actions; it is not the actions themselves – which means that rape culture is perhaps best understood as the presence of an ongoing sexual threat. If someone wielding a gun threatens to shoot me unless I comply with their orders, I’m supremely unlikely to challenge them: they don’t have to shoot me in order to change my behaviour. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if they really planned to shoot me, or if the gun was even loaded. The point – the effect – is power and coercion, and only someone who was completely callous, stupid, oblivious or a combination of all three would argue that the threat of being shot – and the subsequent change to my behaviour – was meaningless unless I actually was shot. Similarly, if I’m threatened with rape and violence and silenced with gendered, sexualised slurs every time I disagree with male gamers on the internet, it doesn’t matter if they really plan to rape me, or if they’re even capable of doing so: as with the gun, the point – the effect – is power and coercion, and the logic which underlies their choice of threat. What they want is to shut me up by reminding me that rape happens, that it could and should happen to me because of what I’ve said. And when that is your go-to means of silencing women in a context where men are the majority, where the female form is routinely shown in attitudes of hypersexualisation, sexualised violence and submission, and where men are in majority control of that setting? That is rape culture. 

Which brings me to the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian.

Sarkeesian, for those who’ve never heard of her, runs a website called Feminist Frequency, where – among other things – she posts videos deconstructing and criticising the presence of sexist tropes in popular culture. Recently, she went on Kickstarter to garner funding for a new series of videos: Tropes vs Women in Video Games. It should tell you something significant about the popularity of this idea – and of Sarkeesian herself – that, having asked for a mere $6,000 in financing, she has, as of today – with four days left on the clock – been funded to the tune of $44,027 – more than seven times what she initially asked for. Here’s her kickstarter pitch:

I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented.  This video project will explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.  The series will highlight the larger recurring patterns and conventions used within the gaming industry rather than just focusing on the worst offenders.  I’m going to need your help to make it happen!

As a gamer, a pop culture critic and a fan, I’m always working to balance my enjoyment of media while simultaneously being critical of problematic gender representations. With my video web series Feminist Frequency,  I look at the way women are portrayed in mass media and the impact they have on our culture and society.


With your help, I’ll produce a 5-video series (now expanded to 12 videos) entitled Tropes vs Women in Video Games, exploring female character stereotypes throughout the history of the gaming industry.  This ambitious project will primarily focus on these reoccurring tropes:

  • Damsel in Distress – Video #1
  • The Fighting F#@k Toy – Video #2
  • The Sexy Sidekick – Video #3
  • The Sexy Villainess – Video #4
  • Background Decoration – Video #5

1st Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Voodoo Priestess/Tribal Sorceress – Video #6
  • Women as Reward – Video #7
  • Mrs. Male Character – Video #8
  • Unattractive Equals Evil – Video #9
  • Man with Boobs – Video #10
  • Positive Female Characters! - Video #11

2nd Stretch Goal Achieved!

  • Let’s Bump up the Production Quality!

3rd Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Tropes vs Women in Video Games Classroom Curriculum 
  • Video #12 – Top 10 Most Common Defenses of Sexism in Games

Each video will be between 10 and 20 minutes long and available online for free for everyone and anyone to watch, share and use.

Pretty benign language, yes? All she’s done is state what should be a fairly uncontroversial and obvious truth – that women are often presented badly in video games – and proposed to discuss this in detail.

And for this crime, she has been threatened with rape, with death and with violence, and had her Wikipedia page vandalised with images of graphic pornography.

This is what rape culture looks like in gaming: the use of misogyny to defend yourself against the accusation of misogyny. It’s like a woman telling an abusive partner that he’s abusive, and the partner being so angered by this that he punches her in the face. It’s doing exactly the thing you’re being accused of in response to that accusation while simultaneously trying to plead your innocence. And you know what makes this even worse? Sarkeesian hasn’t even started her videos yet. All she’s done is tried to get the funding for them – but even the prospect of a popular feminist deconstructing video game sexism has apparently been deemed so threatening, so emasculating and yet simultaneously so unnecessary by this particular misogynistic segment of the gaming population that, as one, they’ve risen up to threaten her with death, rape and physical violence.

And I can’t help but wonder: how many of Sarkeesian’s attackers use rape language when gaming? How many of them have inferred that because it’s apparently OK to talk about raping other players in-game, it’s OK to issue rape threats against women out of game? What are the odds that the men who vandalised her Wikipedia page with pornographic images – who decided that the quickest, easiest and most universally effective way to insult, demean and punish a female adversary was to hypersexualise her – are the same men arguing that the hypersexualisation of female characters in video games is normative, desirable, harmless? I’ll say it again: rape is not the sole expression of rape culture, and the fact that it exists foremost in gaming in nonphysical spaces – forums, online, in game, on the other end of the microphone, in game design itself – doesn’t make it any less toxic to women than the unsafe frat houses of Boswell and Spade’s study.

Critics within gaming seem to think that, unless we can prove definitively that rape culture acts like some sort of Hypno-Ray to turn otherwise normal men into rapists and sexual harassers, the whole idea of social settings that are inherently toxic to both female safety and healthy gender relations is bunk. But what else do you call it when gamers defend sexism in gaming by threatening a woman with rape? What else do you call it when a prominent figure in gaming says that “sexual harassment is part of the culture” and counts this as a defensible, necessary thing? What else do you call it when the combination of hypersexualisation and violence against women are so deeply embedded in gaming culture that a significant portion of developers and fans don’t see it as problematic? What else do you call it when the default form of insult used by and against male players is, as Penny Arcade’s Tycho once called it, ad mominem – that is, a way of insulting men by sexually impugning the women (mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends) with whom they’re most closely associated? There’s a reason, after all, why such jokes are used primarily against men, and why their subjects are never fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends – what misogynistic male gamer would bother leveling sexually loaded insults at a female player’s mother when he could just level them at her? Show me a female gamer who’s played online or at tournaments, or even one who has simply participated actively in male-dominated gaming forums, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I will show you a female gamer who has at some point been called a bitch, a cunt,a slut or a whore by male players, or who has been crudely sexually propositioned by male players, or who has otherwise been sexually threatened or intimidated by male players, because this is how rape culture is primarily expressed in digital contexts: through the abusive language, gendered slurs, sexual threats, silencing and exclusion that are levelled at women generally, but which are specifically and intensely used to punish women like Sarkeesian, who dare to point out that this is what’s actually happening.

The core argument of rape culture isn’t that exposure to yet another instance of highly sexualised violence against women will turn every man who sees it into a rapist, and that therefore we should censor everything that even vaguely references women and violence together; the point is that in a healthy culture, there would be no need to censor such images, because participants in that culture would have enough respect for women to neither create nor demand them as mainstream in the first place. Because ultimately, the big objection to the charge of rape culture in gaming seems to boil down to fears about censorship: that by criticising creative output and language as being problematic, sexist and offensive, people like me are arguing for less art all together, when what we’re actually arguing for is more good art. Sexualised violence and the sexual objectification of women should be to gaming like The Human Centipede, a film which is horrific in absolutely every sense of the word, is to cinema: something that we all understand is vile, but where a desire to confront that vileness is the motive for watching – as opposed to a scenario where almost every film produced contains elements of The Human Centipede, and has done for so long that cinemagoers treat those elements as normative rather than vile, because they’ve become so commonplace that they can’t properly imagine films without them, reacting with bafflement and outrage and cries of ‘Censorship!’ every time some critic were to suggest that maybe, just maybe, not every film needs to feature graphic depictions of the forced ingestion of shit.

In other words: it is not censorship to suggest that gamers and game corporations should increase their collective respect for women, or to try and encourage the creation of a gaming culture that would nominally reflect such respect in both its output and its language.

Returning to the Boswell and Spade paper about rape culture in fraternities, it’s extremely important to note the differences between houses which were identified as ‘safe’ – that is, houses where women felt comfortable and which had lower levels of sexual assault – and those which were ‘unsafe’ – where women felt more vulnerable and which had higher levels of sexual assault. To quote:

“At high-risk houses, parties typically had skewed gender ratios, sometimes involving more men and other times involving more women. Gender segregation also was evident at these parties, with the men on one side of a room or in the bar drinking while women gathered in another area. Men treated women differently in the high-risk houses. The women’s bathrooms in the high-risk houses were filthy, including clogged toilets and vomit in the sinks… 

Men attending parties at high-risk houses treated women less respectfully, engaging in jokes, conversations, and behaviors that degraded women. Men made a display of assessing women’s bodies and rated them with thumbs up or thumbs down for the other men in the sight of the women. One man attending a party at a high-risk fraternity said to another, “Did you know that this week is Women’s Awareness Week? I guess that means we get to abuse them more this week.” Men behaved more crudely at parties at high-risk houses… It was rare to see a group of men and women together talking. Men were openly hostile, which made the high-risk parties seem almost threatening at times.”

In other words: the high-risk environments that were toxic for and dangerous to women were characterised by skewed gender ratios, poor respect for female spaces, offensive jokes made at the expense of women, the hypersexualisation of women themselves, and male hostility towards women – all of which is representative of rape culture. The fact that these behaviours are also representative of many digital spaces in gaming culture should not be any less alarming simply because they happen online: the misogyny, sexism and disrespect which underlie their usage is, at base, identical. Similarly, it’s worth noting that in another recent paper, Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace by Sreedhari D. Desai, Dolly Chugh and Arthur P. Brief, the authors found that employed men in traditional marriages – that is, marriages where the wife stayed home and the husband was designated as the sole breadwinner – tended, when compared to men in non-traditional marriages, to:

“(a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”

On the surface, this has nothing to do with rape culture – and yet I mention it by way of demonstrating that the way men treat and think of women in their private lives has a direct impact on how they treat them professionally and elsewhere. This doesn’t even have to be a conscious process – as the authors point out, the majority of such sexism was implicit rather than overt, meaning that the men didn’t even realise they were doing it – but either way, the impact on women remains the same. Given this evidence, then, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that male gamers who disrespect women online, who threaten women with rape, who call women bitches and sluts in anger, and who view both women in games and women gamers through the lens of hypersexualisation, will be much less likely to respect women generally and elsewhere. And that really is significant in terms of analysing the elusive physical, real-world implications of rape culture in gaming, because even though gaming itself is a primarily digital culture, gamers themselves still inhabit the real world, where they must necessarily interact with women in physical spaces and contexts that have nothing whatsoever to do with gaming.

Or, put it another way: parties, clubs and bars are universal spaces, places where people of all different cultures and subcultures meet – as, for that matter, are workplaces, offices, shops and streets. If a group of footballers sexually assault three women in a hotel, for instance, we aren’t wrong to ask about the influence of rape culture in football, even though the physical location of the assault is a public place with no specific ties to either the sport or its culture. But this is where things become tricky, because gamers – unlike footballers – aren’t celebrities; and unlike fratboys, their subcultural identity is unlikely to be mentioned in the event that they’re involved in an incident of sexism or sexual assault. And there’s the additional problem of making the nomenclature accurate: while it’s very easy to identify footballers and fratboys – do they belong to a club or frat house? then yes – it’s less easy to tell who, for the purpose of analysis, is a gamer, and if so, what their level of participation in gaming culture actually is. It’s exactly this sort of subtle point that so easily gets lost in public discourse, but which becomes exquisitely relevant when we start talking about preventative strategies and the real world consequences of rape culture in gaming. Saying gamers are is a vastly less accurate and more problematic notion than saying gaming is: even though there’s a massive intersection between the two concepts, the former is still a generalisation about types of people, while the latter is an assessment of culture that may or may not be relevant to individual participants in that culture. But still, I have to ask: if gaming itself lacks the physical spaces we usually associate with the most dramatic consequences of rape culture – but if this doesn’t invalidate the fact that many sexist male gamers are nonetheless learning from and actively participating in a rape culture they refuse to acknowledge as negative – then what happens when those men interact with women in other areas of life? On the basis of the evidence, they seem deeply unlikely to respect them, and however subconscious their sexism may be at such times, the fact that any physical consequences, such as abuse or assault, would happen outside of gaming-oriented contexts does not free gaming as a community – as a culture – of the responsibility to reinforce the fact that abusing women at any time is completely unacceptable.

So: gaming culture is – or at least, contains many problematic elements of – a rape culture. It is frequently hostile to women, toxic in terms of both the hypersexualised, violent content and the hypersexualised, violent language it uses to demean and belittle women. Even if, for whatever reason, you’d hesitate to use the term rape culture, it should nonetheless be apparent that gaming, en masse, has deep-seated problems with its treatment of women, and that this ought to be addressed. The horrific backlash against Anita Sarkeesian is unacceptable. The Hitman: Absolution trailer is unacceptable. Aris Bakhtianians’s comments are unacceptable. Saying so is not censorship: it is simply a call to treat women with respect. But so long as gamers refuse to acknowledge that rape culture is an issue which applies to gaming, the situation will not – cannot – get better.

Trigger warning: rape. 

Penny Arcade is the webcomic that got me into webcomics, which is saying something. The first truly geeky friends I met at school showed it to me almost as a rite of passage, thereby hooking me not only on the strip itself, but webcomics generally. For years, PA held pride of place with all of us: most quoted, most referenced, most likely to be shown to yet more newcomers as an offer of subcultural goodwill. A friend and I once spent an entire all-day Latin seminar staving off boredom by writing PA quotes to each other in a shared notebook; at college, I introduced my hallmates to it and ended up participating in several cardboard tube samurai battles on the front lawn; I still sometimes wear my Div shirt. In fact, my email signature contains a Tycho quote – not from a comic, but from a now-ancient newspost about the Playstation; so ancient, in fact, that I don’t think it’s even online any more, and which was so obscure originally that I’m probably one of the few people who actively remembers it, let alone ascribes it personal relevance.  The quote, which I have memorised, goes like this:

People seemed to prefer this, but only marginally so, the way one might prefer to be stabbed than shot. Optimally, one is neither stabbed nor shot. Optimally, one eats some cake! But there are times when cake is not available, and instead we are destroyed. This is the deep poetry of the universe.

You’d have to perform an impressive feat of archaeological psychology in order to understand the relevance of this statement to my sixteen-year-old self; or rather, in order to understand why, of all possible quotes from all possible PA newsposts, it was this one she chose to take to heart. Nonetheless, it’s a line I’ve always liked, because even though it originally appeared in context as a form of poetic sarcasm, it still manages to convey something important about life, the universe and everything, viz: sometimes there are just no good options available.

At the time of the dickwolves controversy – that is to say, slightly less than two years ago – I had never heard of rape culture. So when I saw that PA was being accused of it, my first reaction, rather than to get angry at the strip itself, was to try and get my head around what rape culture actually was. By the time I’d done this, enough time had passed that the furor had died down, which left me in sort of a weird headspace. On the one hand, the dickwolves joke made me uncomfortable even before I encountered criticism of it, and after I’d done so, I thought the critics had a point; on the other, I had a deep-seated trust and affection for all things PA, and as I’d come late to the argument, I didn’t feel much personal impetus to weigh in. Instead, I resolved to become a more critical reader, and to keep my eyes peeled for any future offences.

And then, today happened.

Basically, the trailer for the new Hitman game involves hypersexualised BDSM assassin-nuns being beaten to death by the male protagonist, and a significant proportion of the online gaming community has risen up to point out that this is both textbook rape culture and completely, grossly offensive. So when I saw that PA’s Tycho (aka Jerry Holkins) had followed up their latest strip with an explanatory newspost, I was understandably curious as to what his stance would be.

To quote:

I saw a single still used to promote a Hitman: Absolution trailer, a phalanx of leather-clad Battle-Nuns, and decided to skip it.  I felt like I had probably seen something very similar at some point.  But being mad at it is apparently a thing, a compulsory thing.  Except I don’t do compulsory, and I also don’t do infantilizing chivalry.  So I don’t do well at these kinds of parties…

It’s fight choreography, and it may set an “erotic” stage but it quickly – and I mean quickly – gives way to a gruesome, life or death, septum obliterating struggle that might be hot for somebody but I suspect that’s a very specific demographic.  Only a necrophile could be titillated by something like this; by the end, it literally defies the viewer to maintain an erection.  As spank material, it leaves something to be desired; specifically, spank material.

I think that once a nun produces an RPG from her habit, we have passed through a kind of “veil” critically speaking.  We can certainly talk about it for a long time if you want to.  But she did pull out a rocket launcher, seriously just right out of there.  It came out.  And then people still wanted to talk about this as though it were some kind of haunted obelisk around which an entire medium whirls.

I don’t understand what it is about the idea of a “medium” that people find so confusing; it’s a conceptual space where works that share certain characteristics may occur.  Nobody is going to approve of the entire continuum.  There’s no shortage of games for the broadest possible audience – there isn’t, and grotesque sums are being made seeking the wide part of the curve.  There are also niches, as in any ecology.  You can certainly find things you don’t like, but those things aren’t anti-matter; when they come into contact with things you do like, there is no hot flash which obliterates both.  This totalizing dialogue, where “everything” and “everyone” is this or that, and here are the teams, and morality is a linear abstraction as opposed to its three dimensional reality is a crock of fucking shit.

The swooning and fainting and so forth about this stuff, the fever, is comical in its preening intensity.  There is clearly some kind of competition to determine who is the most scandalized.  It reminds me of church, frankly; I don’t do church, either.  I have no common cause with perpetually shocked viziers of moral pageantry.  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that I am their enemy.

The answer is always more art; the corollary to that is the answer is never less art.  If you start to think that less art is the answer, start over.  That’s not the side you want to be on.  The problem isn’t that people create or enjoy offensive work.  The problem is that so many people believe that culture is something other people create, the sole domain of some anonymized other, so they never put their hat in the ring.

That’s basically the whole post, right there; and as I read it, I experienced this sort of terrible wrenching in the part of the brain that houses our idealised past, our youthful idols, and all the naive perfection and nostalgia we ascribed to them first at the time and then later in memory. It only lasted a moment, but it was profound, because it irrevocably signals the point at which Jerry Holkins transitioned from being “geeky figurehead I respect” to “stubborn, selectively insensitive ass on the internet” in my personal lexicon. Which isn’t to say that these are forever and always mutually exclusive positions; it was just disappointing as hell, however heralded by his response to the dickwolves incident (or even to the fact that he thought it was acceptable in the first place).

When broken down, his argument basically runs as follows:

  • compulsory things are bad – or rather, compulsory outrage linked to what he seems to think of as political correctness is bad;
  • he personally doesn’t find the video arousing, so therefore the argument about it being hypsexualised is  moot;
  • because the nuns are doing something physically impossible (withdrawing big weapons from skintight clothing), the setting is confirmed as unreal, which means nobody can sensibly complain about anything else it gets wrong;
  • any problematic elements that still conceivably exist aren’t representative of gaming culture as a whole, but only of a niche section of games whose existence constitutes a healthy part of the creative ecology;
  • complaining about the influence or subject matter of such games is missing the point, because we should all be able to just respect each other’s tastes; and
  • bringing any moral or social complaint to the table is not only tantamount to the advocation of censorship, but something people only do when they want to be scandalized, as opposed to actually having a legitimate complaint.

Let’s address these points in order, shall we?

1. Compulsory things are bad – or rather, compulsory outrage linked to what he seems to think of as political correctness is bad.

Disparaging something lots of people care about as ‘compulsory’ and thereby refusing to participate is an act that tends to fall into one of two categories: childish contrition, as per a toddler refusing to eat their vegetables, or hipsterish disdain, as per anyone who refuses to read a book, watch a movie or listen to a song solely on the basis that it’s popular. Applying this attitude to politics – or, more specifically, to problems of inequality – is pretty much the genesis of hipster racism and ironic sexism, which (funnily enough) are both completely indistinguishable from actual racism and sexism. So straight off the bat, anyone who says they refuse to get angry about rape culture because that’s what everyone else is doing – or, to use Tycho’s words, because they “don’t do compulsory” –  has, much like the hipster racist, completely sidestepped the issue of whether bad things are genuinely happening in order to try and look cool. Which, yeah, no.

2. He personally doesn’t find the video arousing, so therefore the argument about it being hypsexualised is  moot.

Every time I hear someone arguing that a particular sexualised or negative representation of women is neither problematic nor offensive because they, personally, don’t find it sexy, I die a little inside. Dear straight men everywhere: case by case, the hypersexualisation of women is not definitionally dependent on your getting a boner. It’s not even necessarily about what you consciously find attractive or erotic. Subconscious bias is a real thing: the images we see, the stories we absorb and the cultural narratives in which we participate all have the power to change our unconscious assumptions about the world. Anyone who thinks that our conscious reactions and preferences are all that matter is missing the point by quite a substantial margin. The Hitman: Absolution trailer isn’t problematic because somehow, magically, the majority of straight men who watch it will feel conscious arousal and/or actively think about hurting women as a result (though doubtless there’s a concerning minority who will); the problem is that the majority of people who watch it, regardless of orientation or gender, will subconsciously absorb the message that violence and sexuality are linked; that images of beautiful dead women are normal; and that there’s nothing sexist or problematic about the image of a man gratuitously killing hypersexualised nuns being used to sell videogames. The argument, in short – that games can’t change us, and that their content doesn’t matter – is one that PA have actively pilloried when reactionary politicians have used it to say that games aren’t art; to argue that games can only change us for the better, however, seems just as ignorant. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too: if games are truly a valid means of cultural expression with the power to effect real change in those who love them, then that means they can impart both negative and positive development; can be dominated by negative or positive trends. Asserting otherwise is an act of willful blindness – and not only because fiction has an actual neurological effect on our brains.

3. Because the nuns are doing something physically impossible (withdrawing big weapons from skintight clothing), the setting is confirmed as unreal, which means nobody can sensibly complain about anything else it gets wrong.

Seriously, this isn’t a point I should need to explain to anyone who regularly grapples with SFF, but as I apparently do:  the presence of unreality in a story no more renders it immune to criticism on the grounds of sexism than it excuses a lack of narrative cohesion, poor writing or offensive stereotypes. The fact that a story isn’t ‘about’ sexism doesn’t prevent it from being sexist, and the presence of one flaw – improbably concealed weapons – certainly doesn’t obviate the presence of others – hideously sexualised violence and dead BDSM nuns. Honestly, I’m not even sure what Tycho meant to convey with this point: that because one visual element of the trailer was problematic or unreal, calling the whole thing out for sexism and rape culture is redundant? That because the game isn’t very good or original, nobody should comment on how offensive the trailer is? Neither of those arguments makes any sense at all, unless your sole purpose in deploying them is to try and argue that accusations of sexism and rape culture are less important than poor visual continuity in a second-rate game.

Oh. Wait.

4. Any problematic elements that still conceivably exist aren’t representative of gaming culture as a whole, but only of a niche section of games whose existence constitutes a healthy part of the creative ecology.

The assertion that sexism and rape culture aren’t part of mainstream gaming culture – or even that they’re problems worth discussing with reference to gaming culture as a whole – is both hugely problematic in its own right and deeply baffling when you consider that not long ago, the PA site was providing coverage about the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and rape culture in fighting game circles when Aris Bakhtanians said they were fine and necessary aspects of it. And it’s not like PA has traditionally been oblivious to the sexualisation of women in games, online and by geek culture generally –  although they’ve definitely perpetrated sexism as well as criticising it. Or, put it another way: Penny Arcade has been around now since 1998 – that’s the better part of fourteen years – and has been considered a preeminent voice in gaming culture for most of that time. So if I can dip into their archives and, over the course of fifteen-odd minutes, find regular references to sexualised depictions of women in games, sexual insults in gaming and sexual harassment generally, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that sexism in gaming and the hypersexualisation of female characters has been an ongoing issue for at least the past decade. I mean, seriously: it’s one thing to argue that all this bullshit belongs to a niche area of gaming that has nothing to do with the mainstream, and quite another to say so when your own history of creative output  – which itself constitutes your professional livelihood – contradicts you.

5. Complaining about the influence or subject matter of such games is missing the point, because we should all be able to just respect each other’s tastes.

Respecting other people’s tastes is generally a good rule to live by, but acknowledging that some depictions are problematic and actively contribute to problematic cultures is still necessary. More than once, PA has referenced the prevalence of homophobia and homophobic insults in the gaming community; in fact, they’ve arguably taken active steps to destigmatise it. This being so, I can’t understand why, when it comes to the issue of rape culture, the whole issue reverts to this wishy-washy stance that people should be allowed to like what they like. The only possible explanation is either that Tycho just doesn’t see rape culture as an issue in the same way homophobia is, or that somehow, he doesn’t see it as an issue at all – neither of which is exactly encouraging.

6. Bringing any moral or social complaint to the table is not only tantamount to the advocation of censorship, but something people only do when they want to be scandalized, as opposed to actually having a legitimate complaint.

Similar to the above, it would be ludicrous to suggest that attempts to counteract homophobia in gaming represent active censorship in terms of what stories can be told and the destructive presence of a ‘compulsory’ political agenda – by which I mean, the only people suggesting it are themselves homophobes. So why, when it comes to an identical issue of language, bias and prejudice, is PA suddenly fearmongering about how acknowledging the existence of rape culture in games is somehow the same as arguing for the creation of ‘less art’?

Well, I guess Tycho was right about one thing: there are certainly times when cake is not available, and instead we are destroyed. Or at least, our faith in humanity is.

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.

First, some links:

Clay Shirky on the collapse of traditional newspapers and the need to find alternative means of journalism;

Natalia Morar, who organised an anti-government flashmob on Twitter and is now hiding from arrest;

Oprah and other celebrities battling to be the first on Twitter with a million followers; and

SR7,  a company for hire that specialises in digging up dirt on employees for other companies.

Now, some thoughts, in no particular order:

 1. Journalism is essential. People both like and need to know what’s going on. However, journalism is not a naturally occuring resource. People must go out, obtain information, then analyse, write and relay it, a time-consuming process traditionally deemed deserving of monetary compensation. No matter how easy it is to copy an existing source online, that source first needs to come from somewhere; and before that, someone must decide that the source itself is newsworthy.

2. As has always been true of all creative endeavours (singing, painting, dancing), there are vastly more people who participate in these activities than are paid to do so. Largely, this is a question of enjoyment, creative expression and ease. Blogs have tapped into this in a big way. Most bloggers make no money. Many blogs are read by only a tiny handful of people known to the writer, or not at all. And yet, they are prolific, because even without monetary compensation, the vast majority of people simply enjoy writing them. Many readers employ a similar logic.

3. Despite having been around for a number of years, Twitter has only just hit the collective journalistic hivemind. Recent weeks have seen an explosion of articles on how it is being used, why it is damaging people, whether the concept is utterly pointless, and the implications of its ongoing development. Diverse examples of all these include:

- the now-notorious #amazonfail incident and its aftermath;

- the Times bemoaning Twitter as a ‘rolling news service of the ego’ and then promptly signing up;

- a warning that social networking sites are damaging kids’ brains at the same time Twitter is being added to the Brittish school curriculum; and

- the use of Twitter in both the Mumbai bombings and hyperlocal news sites.

4. Writing on the collapse of newspapers as we know them, Clay Shirky sums up the process of social revolutions thusly: “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.” He concludes by saying that what we need is a “collection of new experiments” to help us figure out how journalism – as distinct from newspapers – can keep working.

5. TV news isn’t going anywhere. Neither is radio, which has survived bigger technological upheavals. Print journalism is failing because the internet has ruined its monopoly on exclusive media. Unlike free-to-air radio and television, which have always had to contend with the notion that a majority of listeners won’t be paying directly for their content, newspapers have thrived as a one-to-one exchange: a set amount of money per customer per paper, with very few exceptions. It’s not that the internet devalues the written word, or that making journalism freely available is inimical to notions of profit: it’s that, without being able to charge on that one-to-one basis, newspapers cannot command anything like their previous volume of revenue. They’ve simply never had to compete with a medium that could do the same thing, better, for a fraction of the cost. And now they’re floundering.

6.  Spare a moment to consider the notion of Digital Rights Management – DRM – and its relationship to the newspaper fiasco. Although concerned parimarily with digital music copyright, the ongoing debate about encryption for games and, with the advent of the Kindle and other such devices, the pirateability of digital books and audiobook rights, the underlying problem is the same in both instances: defining notions of ownership for both users and creators in an era where digital copies are readily available. Books in particular have always been subject to the whims of borrowing and lending without falling apart, but might their new digital formats change that? Or are they an exception to the rule? For long stints of time, it’s nicer to read on a page than a screen, but what if screens are improved, or some other technology developed that is just as comfortable to use as paper? Will we still crave tactile connections

7. People might not like to pay for content, but as WikipediaYouTube and Linus Torvalds have already proven, many are ready, willing and able to create content for free. Open source principles clearly predate the current revolution, and consciously or not, they’re informing it. Remove money from the equation (or at least, give it a drastically reduced emphasis) and gaze anew at the crisis of print journalism. Blogs, tweets, viral news: many of the new news staples are ungoverned, unruly, disparate products of the hivemind – flashmobs, crowdsourcing – but that doesn’t mean they go utterly unpoliced or work without change or criticism. Hey, it’s a revolution, folks. We’re breaking and making at the speed of thought. Give us time to learn the ropes.

8. Way back in 1995,  Major Motoko Kusanagi once mused, “And where does the newborn go from here? The net is vast and infinite.” In 2006, she reaffirmed the sentiment. We’re not yet ghosts in the shell, but let’s keep an open mind. The future rests in us.

As a child, there are few things more heady than playing without adult supervision, and few things more crucial to healthy development. It’s a big part of learning to gauge social situations: particularly, the idea that it’s often necessary to behave differently depending on the circumstances. Looked at purely in terms of running around or socialising while adults read in the next room, it’s a sensible – even obvious – assumption. Kids need to be on their own. Should they start picking up bad habits – for instance, acting like hoydens all the time – then parents must rightly step in and explain why this behaviour is inappropriate. The very last resort is banning play itself, or forbidding a child to see certain friends, not just because it’s an extreme measure, but because of the difficulties in enforcing it. 

Now, however, the rise in digital gamespaces has created a phenomenon that many parents are yet to recognise as significant: adolescent participation in virtual and online communities. Time was, punishing bad behaviour by revoking a child’s TV, computer, phone or game-playing privileges was a parental standard: the ace up the adult sleeve. But with so many kids and teenagers relying heavily on new technology for social interaction, blacklisting internet use or taking away consoles has become the equivalent of prohibiting contact with friends. Unintentionally, some parents are upgrading their retaliatory arsenal from standard bombs to nuclear, and are therefore miffed and furious by turns when their child’s reaction seems over the top. The worst-case scenario is, undoubtably, that of Brandon Crisp, a 15-year-old who ran away after being banned from playing X-Box and was later found dead. His father, who’d imposed the ban, is understandably grieved by the tragedy, but has also said that he now understands his son’s reaction.

“I just took away his identity, so I can understand why he got mad and took off. Before, I couldn’t understand why he was taking off for taking his game away,” he said.

It’s a notably drastic example, but one which does, perhaps, exemplify the problem: how do parents withold technological privilege now without simultaneously removing avenues of social contact? It’s a tough question, and one I don’t have an answer to, despite being sympathetic to both positions. It is also, however, something I’ve experienced myself.

When I was about twelve or so, my mother took me to coffee with one of her friends. This friend had a daughter, Michelle, who, apart from being my age, was a born technology geek, and in this respect utterly dissimilar to her mother. The women chatted while I drank my hot chocolate; and then, quite suddenly, my mother’s friend mentioned how angry and irrational Michelle had been acting ever since she banned her from using the internet. Curious, I asked why she’d banned her; the friend replied that Michelle had been leaving a program open that used up their bandwidth. After a short discussion, it became apparent that the program in question was Kazaa, a two-way music download site of the old, pre-iTunes-and-collapse-of-Napster ouevre, and that the bandwidth was being used up because Michelle was allowing other users to download songs from her.

‘So why not just say she can’t use the site?’ I asked, puzzled and a little indignant on Michelle’s behalf. ‘Or that she can’t let other people download songs? Because taking away the internet, I mean, that’s a big thing. That means she can’t check her email, or chat to friends – ‘ both crucial when we were twelve – ‘or anything like that. It’s a big punishment.’ I tried very hard to stress this.

My mother’s friend frowned, shrugged and waved a hand.

‘Oh, but I don’t care about any of that,’ she said, and promptly changed the subject.

In the scheme of things, it wasn’t a big incident, but the injustice of it frustrated me for some time afterwards. The punishment was grossly disproportionate to the crime, and what was worse, Michelle’s mother didn’t seem to care, even after it was explained and even though it explained her daughter’s behaviour. To her, the importance of chat and internet were nil, and so removing them oughtn’t have been a problem: my protest (and, presumably, Michelle’s) was just another sign of unwarranted complaint. Now, of course, I’m free to use teh interwebnologies as I please; Kazaa is long since gone, and I haven’t used Trillian for years. But it makes me wonder: when I have kids of my own, will I understand what’s important to them?

And, more importantly, will I be willing to learn?