Posts Tagged ‘Penny Arcade’

Penny Arcade strip for 14 October 2013.

This, right here, is what the male gaze looks like; and this, right here, is also why it’s a fucking problem.

Orange is the New Black is a Netflix original show about women in prison. Though not without problematic elements, as pretty much everything spawned by our culture is, it nonetheless stands head and shoulders above so much else on offer in its portrayal of a wide variety of complex, interesting women – women of colour, trans women, poor women, criminal women, disabled women, mentally ill women, queer women, immigrant women, religious women, atheist women – with a depth, compassion and, above all, narrative primacy that exists almost nowhere else on television. ¬†It’s a clever, well-written, engaging show, and it’s doing something important.

So, naturally, its value is immediately reduced to being a source of hot topless chicks for straight dudes to gawk at.

AUGH.

I have, as I’ve previously had occasion to mention, been reading Penny Arcade since I was about fifteen; which is to say, for twelve damn years. Sometimes, as has been well-documented by this point, they fuck up; increasingly, they also try to make reparations for fucking up, too, but that doesn’t give them a free pass when they do it again. Part of loving something as an adult is thinking critically about it, and I’m going to say it now and loudly: if you feel tempted to drop me a comment telling me I’m a humourless feminazi who doesn’t understand jokes or men or comedy, or to point out, in overly patronising tones, how Gabe first describes the show in panel two and why this makes it all better, as though I’m incapable of reading and understanding words without your guidance, prepare to be blocked, mocked and quite possibly banned, because I am not here for your bullshit. ¬†Because when I started reading this strip and saw that Orange was mentioned, I felt a surge of hope that Penny Arcade was actually going to do something fucking decent, like respectfully spruiking the kind of show we desperately need more of as a culture, only to find that the whole thing ends up infantilised and sexualised and awful.

Here is the joke: that guys like looking at boobies more than they like empathising with women.

Here is the joke: that female nudity is a trump card, more important to men than the lives and personalities of women themselves.

Here is the joke: that without female nudity, the show wouldn’t be worth watching for either of them, because ultimately, all its other positive attributes are secondary to, suborned by, the overwhelming prerogative of the male gaze.

Shit like this is why, when female cosplayers spend hundreds of hours painstakingly hand-crafting costumes to dress up as the characters they love, the first response of so many douchebag asshats is to photograph their tits, ask them about their sex lives and otherwise act like bodyshaming, racist trolls Рbecause why else are these women there, if not for male gratification?

Shit like this is why Disney apparently thinks that animating individual female faces is so hard that they can only have one or two ladies per film, because “they go through these range of emotions” and “you have to keep them pretty”, because god forbid a female character look anything other than 100% flawless all the fucking time.

Shit like this is why the character modeller for Lightning, the lead character in FFXIII, went out of his way to describe how Lightning’s tits are going to go up to a D cup in the sequel game so that she’ll fucking jiggle on camera.

Shit like this is why Seth MacFarlane thinks it’s fucking hilarious to include a song called We Saw Your Boobs at the Oscars, reducing rape scenes and nuanced performances to nothing but male titillation because BOOBIES, amiright fellas?, so that when someone like Scarlett Johansson says, “You work hard making independent films for fourteen years and you get voted best breasts,” it gets lost beneath a metric fucktonne of skeezy reporters asking questions that are by turns inanely sexist and sexually invasive.

Shit like this is why J. J. Abrams thinks its OK to include a wholly gratutious scene of Carol Marcus in her underwear in Star Trek: Into Darkness, because if Kirk is a womaniser, then OBVIOUSLY it makes sense that a female character would randomly undress in front of him.

Shit like this is why, when Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy to prevent contracting a ferocious type of breast cancer which not only killed her mother, but to which she has an extremely high genetic susceptibility, creepers and misogynists crawled out of the woodwork to talk about how ugly and unfuckable a life-saving operation that was none of their fucking business had made her.

Shit like this is why women are routinely shut down by sexist, sizeist fucks who think that telling us we’re fat or ugly must necessarily invalidate whatever point we’re making, because if a woman isn’t conventionally pretty, then she has no right to take up space by speaking.

Shit like this is why women are routinely mocked by sexist, skeezy shits who think that finding us attractive must necessarily invalidate whatever point we’re making, because if a woman is conventionally pretty, then she must also be stupid, and can take up space only so long as she stays silent; unless, of course, she’s an evil manipulator out to trick men with her beauty, in which case, she’s probably a whore and a user and a fake geek girl, and oh my god, I cannot even keep writing this stuff, because I already did this, and can we even go a fucking WEEK AND A HALF without some new bullshit example of geek misogyny cropping up to remind me that my eloquence is less relevant than my cup size? Christ on a fucking BICYCLE.

Here is a fucking exercise for you, geeky straight men of the internet: STOP MAKING YOUR JUVENILE OBSESSION WITH BOOBIES THE PUNCHLINE TO EVERY FUCKING JOKE YOU TELL. STOP REDUCING US TO BODIES AND OVERSEXUALISED BITS BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO FUCKING COWARDLY TO TRY SEEING US AS PEOPLE WHILE YOUR FRIENDS ARE LAUGHING. Because I, and other women everywhere, are fucking TIRED of your bullshit. Feminism holds that you’re better than this; that you’re 100% capable of treating us respectfully, and not just slaves to some hopeless caveman impulse beyond intelligence or reasoning. WE KNOW YOU ARE BETTER THAN THIS.

So step the fuck up, and PROVE IT.

ETA the first, 15.10.13:¬†Given the number and variety of abusive/sexist/troll comments currently incoming, I’ve currently opted to let them through rather than trash them outright, not to give a platform to such people – I’m still blocking the actual commenters from returning – but to demonstrate what the issue is. As the old saying goes, the comments on any post about feminism invariably justify feminism, and this is turning out to be no exception.

ETA the second, 15.10.13:¬†aaaaand we’re back to screening comments again. GODDAMIT, INTERNET.

ETA the third, 16.10.13: As more than one commenter has suggested that the correct Рnay, obvious Рinterpretation of the strip is a mockery of objectification, rather than a reinforcement of it, I decided to head over to the Penny Arcade Facebook page and see what the faithful readership there was saying about it. Behold my complete and utter lack of shock at the responses to the strip:

Penny Arcade Facebook page reactions to OITNB comic

 

ETA the Fourth, 28.10.13: Have changed “transwomen” to “trans women” in the first para, as it was pointed out that the former usage was Othering.

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‚Äôs not ‚ÄúRape‚ÄĚ it‚Äôs ‚ÄúRape Culture‚ÄĚ, so you conveniently don‚Äôt 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 Рthat is, a set of values, beliefs, rituals, social codes, language, laws and art Рwhich 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.

THE PROJECT

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‚Äôt do compulsory, and I¬†also¬†don‚Äôt do infantilizing chivalry.¬† So I don‚Äôt do well at these kinds of parties…

It‚Äôs fight choreography, and it may set an ‚Äúerotic‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúveil‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôt understand what it is about the idea of a ‚Äúmedium‚ÄĚ that people find so confusing; it‚Äôs a conceptual space where works that share certain characteristics may occur.¬† Nobody is going to approve of the entire continuum.¬† There‚Äôs no shortage of games for the broadest possible audience – there isn‚Äôt, 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‚Äôt like, but those things aren‚Äôt anti-matter; when they come into contact with things you do like, there is no hot flash which obliterates both.¬† This totalizing dialogue, where ‚Äúeverything‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúeveryone‚ÄĚ 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.

Alright. Let’s lay some cards on the table.

I’m a would-be fantasy novelist.¬†I’ve written¬†2.5 actual books, but none are published, nor are¬†any currently en route to being published. The first of these manuscripts was¬†the end-product of my high school schemes, a 160,000 word,¬†first-volume behemoth. Between the ages of 13 and 18,¬†it went through approximately five different iterations,¬†each¬†new interpretation resulting in the total abandonment of the one before, to the point where you could¬†reasonably add another 100,000-odd words to the total project. That still doesn’t include multiple rewrites, countless hand-written notes, several different maps and all the creative angst and sanity of five years’ effort. The irony was, I changed the plot so many times that by the fourth version, I realised (belatedly) that my original framework had ceased to be viable. I scrapped it all, started again, and finished the final product not long before my 19th birthday. It took that long.

Of course,¬†it’s rubbish. There’s interesting characters, some nice ideas, a few paragraphs I’m not entirely ashamed of, and that’s about it. But it wasn’t a waste of time. From the experience, I learned patience, editing, self-analysis and proved, once and for all, that I was capable of writing an entire book. I edited and submitted, but deep down, I knew it was time to move on: I hadn’t started the sequal, and realistically, I never would.

Enter my mind-numbing stint as a legal secretary, and the oodles of spare time in front of a computer¬†it entailed. In the middle of an exceptionally long day, I started writing a new story, in no small way inspired by a recent spate of Buffy-watching. It grew longer. And longer. A plot arc formed. Characters developed. And all of a sudden, without quite intending to, I’d written a 75,000 word quasi-young-adult fantasy novel, with jokes (or at least, my own would-be version of Douglas Adams/Neil Gaiman¬†comic asidery) and the expectation of two more books to come. I submitted; it was rejected, but kindly, and once with actual praise. I¬†managed to wrangle a literary agent, who sent it to Penguin. I started writing the next volume. The agent closed her agency. I kept writing. The novel made it through the first round of Penguin approvals, but was knocked back at the second. I made final contact with my ex-agent, thanking her for the opportunity, and started a new edit of¬†the first volume.

And that brings us up to date.

Something I find intensely problematic with being a would-be author: there’s lots of us. Some are exceptional, some are average, and some are frankly appalling. As best I can tell, the vast majority of people who get rejected by publishers belong to the latter category: it’s a base assumption, and one most people tend to make. Despite my own views, I might objectively be godawful, or at least mediocre. There’s many styles of writing, after all, and¬†blogging is¬†no guarantee of narrative chutzpah. And there’s always room for improvement.

But what I want – what I really want¬†– is to be a fantasy author. It’s no good pretending otherwise. I can’t vouch for my skills, but I can vouch for my determination. A small, stubborn core of me¬†is devoted to that end. It’s why my name, and not a pseudonym, is on this blog: I want to succeed, and be known¬†in that success. I don’t want vast riches, or to be the next J. K¬†Rowling: were that the case, my naievete would be frightening. What I dream about – the dream of dreams – is meeting the writers I love, as a published author.

In the aftermath of Comicon, the longing hits me powerfully, and twists. Over at DeepGenre, Kevin Andrew Murphy pens a writeup that makes me ebb and wrench with jealousy:¬†Scott Kurtz at PvP and Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade, aka Tycho, aren’t helping, either. Clearly, there’s some issues here on my part, but I just want to be there, you know?¬†The fact that I live on a different continent is just another reason to succeed.

I’d¬†planned not to write here about trying to get published. Let’s face it: the blogsphere is a fantastic (ha!) outlet for angst, and while I’m as fond of ranting as the next person, I don’t want to whine at each and every hurdle. (Not much, anyway.) I’ll try to be good. I won’t let it hog the spotlight. But that’s where I’m coming from, and – with a bit of effort – where I’m going.

Ever since a friend introduced me to Penny Arcade back in Year 10, I’ve been a devout gaming/geek webcomics fan. At one point, I was checking seventeen different strips on a daily basis; realising this was insane, I scaled back to fourteen, where I settled until my first year of college. Probably, this would’ve continued, except that the internet connection in my new room was mysteriously broken, and took three weeks, umpteen phonecalls and five consultations with university IT support to fix. By that time, the amount of banked strips had reached critical mass; I didn’t have enough time to catch them all up, and so I pared back to a bare ten, farewelling 8 Bit Theatre, GPF, Nodwick¬†and others with a heavy heart.

Since then,¬†different strips have come and gone – Machall¬†and Demonology 101 have run their course, while Dresden Codak is a new favourite – but my affection for the¬†genre has remained. As has my admiration for the creators of my favourite strips. After eight years of being exposed to their humour, social commentary and general musings, watching the changes in art style and hearing snippets of personal data, they somehow feel more like acquaintances than¬†anything else, people I could bump into and share a laugh with. This is, perhaps, the big difference between webcomics and traditional print media: connection to the creators. I grew up on Snoopy and Garfield, but couldn’t have picked Charles M. Schultz or Jim Davis out of a crowd; I knew nothing about them, their lives or interests beyond an intangible sense that it must somehow¬†influence what they drew and why they drew it.

Not so Fred Gallagher, Scott Kurtz, Jerry Holkins and¬†Michael Krahulik, Greg Dean, Randy Milholland and Tatsuya Ishida. Perhaps more consistently than any other¬†creators, these guys have been with¬†me¬†through the most formative years of my life. I’ve changed since I started reading them, and they’ve changed, too: since my readership began, two have been married and three have had their first children. I’ve left school, gone to university, moved states and tied the knot – but even on my honeymoon, I was still checking comics along with email.

It’s strange to think of¬†geeks grown up¬†– at least, so mainstream society would have us believe. There’s¬†still a strong bias against the idea that you can play video games, enjoy fantasy or sci-fi¬†and read comics as an adult without being just as immature as you were at¬†fourteen, because of the perception that these are childish persuits. As a kid, I¬†was a geekling born to normals; and¬†worse, I was a girl, which made¬†it harder for my parents to¬†notice. Had I been male, perhaps my compulsive interest in dinosaurs, Mario and Transformers would have fit a pattern, rather than seeming incongruous¬†compared a similar fixation on My Little Pony. The penny finally dropped when, after years of playing every console and computer game my friends possessed and¬†saving hundreds of dollars pocket money for a colour Gameboy, I woke up one Christmas to my very own PlayStation. Since then, I’ve never looked back – but had I not stumbled on a group of like-minded webcomic geeks, things might have turned out differently.

One of the greatest trials in growing up is figuring out who you are, not just in relation to other people, but on your own terms. Without friends who shared my interests, I never would have discovered webcomics; but without webcomics, I might have lost confidence in the idea that I could succeed that way, too. Because that’s the other thing I learned: that quirky, geeky, interesting, creative people can, with sufficient effort and support, earn a living through what they love. Although I read books, watch films and listen to music, I’m¬†not privy to the everyday struggle¬†and success of the creators. The end product just appears, disconnected from any personal genesis: like a magic trick, it entertains and inspires, but the mechanics¬†are¬†deliberately¬†concealed. Authors like Neil Gaiman lift the veil through individual blogs, but back then, it was webcomics that got the message through.

Unlike Peter Pan (or today’s lost boys), geeks can grow up. And if webcomics are anything to go by, they can be happy and creatively successful into the bargain.

Thanks, guys.