A Brutal Landscape: Sexual Assault in Gaming Narratives

Content warning: discussion of rape in video games.

It’s like a wave is rolling in, borne of several currents: a Nightline special, an errant tweet, a sequel to a hot gaming franchise. People wondering if we’re going to “start” having this conversation of how to “tackle” rape in video games, but I don’t feel like the conversation ever has stopped. It never, ever stops for me.

Sometimes it feels like the discussions that rape and abuse victims have among themselves is significant and invisible. We pass along content and trigger warnings for shows or games we consume. We acknowledge something off to the side, just out of your line of vision, a thing that lurks in the dark. If you believe that the games industry cannot discuss or approach a conversation about rape, I believe it is because many people feel like we are set apart from this somehow. It doesn’t acknowledge that you might not know who is a victim or a survivor. You don’t know who could contribute or maybe the ways that we have been, all along.

Rape is a topic I’d be okay with striking altogether from gaming, outside of victim- or survivor-written narratives. It’s obvious that the game industry barely recognizes what counts as sexual assault, let alone acknowledging that people are victims of it. The insistence to include rape in games creates this uneasy message that someone like me doesn’t belong here. Given that sexual assault is an assertion of systemic power and violence, it is grimly ironic.

I want to ask all of these developers, writers, a simple, “Why?”

Why put this in your game? Why this and not something else? It leads me to think that many find it essential as texture, to make the world “come alive.” It creates a world that so many don’t have to live in day-by-day but can participate in, like tourism. When you make a game and use it to bolster the game’s “realism,” what you’re telling me is that you need our suffering as a fixture in your world, placed just-so, like a lamp. What is actually disruptive violence in the real world, exists as something inevitable and crucial for your fictional one.

“But rape exists in movies and comic books too!” 

When I watch a movie or read a comic book, there is a passivity there. I cannot affect the story at hand, I am not a part of it. I can either regard or turn away. The fact is that I have more control in being passive than what gaming frequently offers me. At best, a game’s interactivity absolutely positions us as a silent participant, a complicit bystander, with no ability to change course. At worst, it puts us into the position of the rapist. These are two alternatives that I cannot bear, time and time again. The fact that so many games rely on showing us these things and never center a victim or survivor in the narrative indicates that games care more about rape than those who are raped.

Rape is complex. It’s not picking the wrong item to equip or taking the wrong road. Games are focused often on player choice and it never seems to address that it is not about a victim’s choices, it is actually about a rapist’s choices. But the narrative never really reflects that, indicating that rape is just something that sort of happens. It also neglects that rape is the escalation of many more innocuous things in our culture. Rape culture, which feminists talk about often, isn’t just a buzzword – it literally describes the seemingly endless language that builds slowly to enable rape at all levels. Much like playing enough games gives you a familiar sense of inputs or consequences (jumping off a cliff often kills you, hitting D on a keyboard turns you right), rape culture is our society’s way of developing language to violate someone. We don’t value people’s personal spaces, we demand that women smile or allow us into their immediate vicinity. We overlook if someone is too drunk, we overlook if someone is uncomfortable with disagreeing, we value our own sexual desires over others needs or safety. We place certain groups above others, put people into power over others and give them the ability to enact it without culpability. We strip people’s ability to ever say “no.”

The pinnacle of this is often sexual assault, a finishing move.

“But this guy in the game is evil, that’s why he’s a rapist! It is showing us he’s bad!”

This is a lazy writing trope. It’s just as empty and useless as promoting this idea that all rapists are scary men that lurk in alleyways, that they are people you don’t know. Rapists are not always evil people that wear capes and kidnap young women. Rapists are often the hero, the friend, the family member. They are people who even might think of themselves as good, right, or justified. Many men can’t even reliably identify rape (or even would consider it) even when it is described to them, so how is an huge industry supposed to recognize it when they put it into games?

It is also laughably facile to position rapists as a villain, when it’s horribly rare that we even get to name our rapists in real life, much less bring them to justice. Many times in video games, the rapists are bad, but they are horizontal or parallel to the incredibly violent antagonist, because a victim would never be the person centered in the narrative, much less able to bring retribution on their attacker. If anything, the ability to enact revenge is only ever given to someone who is adjacent to a victim – such as a husband to a wife. Many times, victims are often people who are not even considered worthy enough to be a character. We’re dead and cast off to the side in places where it should be our story.

These are all things I’ve been trying to address in my work for a really long time, as someone who is a survivor and a feminist. The gaming industry has a long way to go because it barely understands how to see us as real people, but only cares as much as we can lend realism. The fact that most of us barely register as human beings means that it will not have the empathy or concern needed to put our stories first and foremost in a video game. The fact that games seem to value rapists over people who have been assaulted means I will always sit uneasily on the sidelines whenever this conversation comes back up, every single time.

 

Writing In the Margins: Bayonetta 2, Sex Criticism, and Power Dynamics

I won’t pretend that this is even remotely an objective look at literally anything and rather a bag of cats that I’ve had going around in my mind for a week now. It’s almost 4 AM my time and this is nothing but one of those dreadful, self-absorbed noodlings on personal experiences and feminist theory. But isn’t that the point of discourse of in our community?

All of this started because I started seeing (whether some phenomenon or actual increased usage in just specifically my circle of Twitter acquaintances) sex positivity and sex negativity being mentioned in the last couple of days. It feels good to see feminist discourse happening in the video games community because I think it is sorely needed after the last 3 months. Admitting that we’re allowed, as feminists, to disagree with each other, feels like a positive first step in healing and growing a community where we’re not letting harassment cause us to constantly have reaffirm each other’s humanity to disgusting people versus having diverse discussions about the nature of our critique.

This seems, of course, all related to Bayonetta 2.

(Here is where I admit I have not played either 1 or 2 to any great degree. As a cultural work though, I feel it has quite a lot of innate context just from the the design and mechanics.)

Not only have I seen several comments painting Bayonetta 2 as enjoyable because of a sex positive viewpoint, but I’ve also seen sex negativity specifically float around as the opposite of that. If you enjoy Bayonetta, you’re the champion against sex-negativity. I find this really hurtful and reductive, especially as someone who tends to fall closer to sex critical or sex negative. I feel that reducing one’s ideological stance to your feelings on literally one video game character undoes a lot of the real nature of sexual discourse in feminism.

This is where I pause and say that you should all read Maddy Myer’s incredibly awesome look at Bayonetta 2. I don’t agree with all of it but I think it’s a really important line of conversation to have and it has a lot of nuance and angles to look at. This is the kind of stuff that games criticism should touch on and we should always make room for. Here’s also where I draw a circle around this conversation with salt , because, straight men, I do not actually give a shit how you feel about any of my thoughts today.

I think I should backtrack a bit and maybe elucidate on why sex positivity/negativity are particularly unsettling concepts to flatten out. For one, neither sex positivity nor negativity initially started as feminist dialogues. Both were schools of thought that date back pretty far in history and eventually came into the fold of critical discourse later on. Sex positivity was a celebration of sexual behavior without moral judgement and sex negativity was the fairly prudish opposite of that, crying that sex was a root of many different problems. Neither are particularly interesting at that basic level and I believe that they became much more interesting once feminist and other social justice movements got started. Much of what was dubbed the “Feminist Sex Wars” were a struggle between two wings of feminist thought – one that openly embraced the Free Love aspect of the 60s and 70s and the other wing that became much of the second wave’s anti-pornography collective. Again, both have really interesting things about them. Second wave also had issues with not just a lack of regard for sex workers but also trans women as well, which is why a lot of sex negative critique is largely not useable. However, moving past that into more 3rd wave and more intersectional analysis of feminist critique, we can see why both approaches are valuable.

I do not see sex negativity or positivity as wholly bad positions. I also don’t see them as opposites necessarily, either. If sex positivity in feminism is embracing women’s agency and sexual empowerment, then sex negativity is critiquing the structures that make enacting that agency and empowerment an issue. I think both together make up a body of sex criticism that looks at the ever-present issues of misogyny, abuse, rape culture and sexual performance, sexuality that is part of our work as a whole. Looking at one without the other, in my mind, does a disservice to large concepts and methods. Both, taken to logical extremes, also have sufficient issues. On the one hand, sex positivity performed in an uncritical way can ignore people who struggle with sexual behavior due to abuse, rape or other traumatic experiences. It can gloss over how sexual performances by women in our society can be co-opted by patriarchal concepts (Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy, while a problematic text, rotates around this idea.) However, it’s also a way for women to embrace their own sexual agency that can be uplifting. It can define what that agency means. It can widen the way we perform our sexuality in our culture and ameliorate those who have been marginalized in a sexual way.

Sex negativity, when taken to this same way can be incredibly harmful to sex workers, focusing on how damaging things like porn can be without respect for the women who work in the industry. It can be incredibly narrow about sexual performance that does not happen in a male-dominated space or with the involvement of men. It can fall back largely on white supremacist concepts of sex that were enforced by colonialism and hurt women of color. However, sex negativity also pokes at the meaning of consent in a society that is founded and enforced by men (Andrea Dworkin’s work has a lot of this), it can tackle power dynamics that surround sexual performance as well.

Both things are incredibly essential to a larger critique of sexual practices and themes. Reducing them to “sex positivity means you think sex is good, sex negativity means you think it is bad” is hearkening back to those roots of the theory and inimical to progress in feminist discourse. Sex cannot be all good or all bad and even framing it in that way is reductive.  As someone who finds herself incredibly critical of sex, seeing these views crop up in gaming, which is still perceived as male-dominated, is alienating. It also falls back onto actually very misogynistic concepts that reduce women on some level to “bad” or “good depending on one’s views on sex. There’s two flavors of this, one being the more contemporary idea in nerd culture that fun women are sexy and cool, and bad women are frigid and stuck-up. The other older idea is the whole virgin/whore dichotomy, which chides women for being lascivious and sexually impure. Both remove the ability for women to act authentically with their sexual behavior and defines it in a moralistic way. The former is the one I see the most happening lately, especially given that nerd media, like video games, portrays women as sexual beings for men’s benefit only versus any of us. Maddy’s article squarely tackled the idea of male gaze being outdated and I largely agree with her. However, I don’t think that negates that there is definitely a very heterosexual male way of looking, especially in media.

A digression, if you’ll allow me.

One of the points that gets brought up in Maddy’s article regarding how rigid the idea of male gaze is that it does, rightfully ignore that the potential audience that is looking could potentially be queer women. Queer women are often a subset of participators when it comes to media consumption that are overlooked when it comes to women being sexy. It seems to follow logically that we’d be in the same general demographic as straight men when it comes to consuming sexualized women in media – except that it really doesn’t. I’ve felt very pushed aside when it comes to seeing the same images of women that are obviously styled for straight men due to the fact that they both reflect their interests (versus mine) but also have a double effect of how those same men perceive me. Many images of sexualized women are reliant on a larger context that derives from a very male-dominated, heterosexual society and it’s very hard to escape that, no matter who you are. Sexualized women are often portrayed as enticing due to their objectification, lack of agency as well complacency. To say that queer women don’t internalize both the idea that this is what we should find sexy in women, as well as ourselves would be faulty. But to say that that’s where it ends is faulty. I don’t find how women are created to appeal to straight men to be representative of my tastes, especially now as a feminist. It relies on too many problematic and frankly, harmful elements for me to feel comfortable.

The personal aspect of this is that as a queer woman navigating internalized misogyny, sexism and my own sexuality as a nerd, I spent a lot of hours sucking up to male friends by joining in their ogling and chatter of women in a sexual way. One of the easiest ways to fit in with nerd guys as a woman is to be “one of the guys” and being a queer woman who also finds women sexually attractive? That’s like a huge stat bonus. Being bisexual also meant I was technically available, so the possibilities were endless. It’s a fantasy of men to subsume a queer woman’s identity – have her enjoy his sexual overtures but also indulge in objectifying women alongside him. Nerds eat that shit up and so it was one of the ways I got my “cred” and tons of attention. It’s one of the most persistent strains of biphobic misogyny as well, that bisexual women are just attention whores and faking it for men. The fact that you are encouraged to do so for men’s validation is besides the point, right? (Heh.)

But when I really thought about it, especially after I broke out of that part of my life, my sexuality was confusing. I didn’t find women attractive in the same way these men did. I didn’t really want to degrade women or treat them like garbage or sex dumpsters. I wanted them the same way I wanted men – meaningfully, in a fun way, as a fellow human being, in a romantic, emotional or sexual way. In short, I wanted to treat them the way I wanted to be treated.

However, that directly deals with how we as people talk about ourselves, but what about applying these things to media? This is where it gets trickier and why Bayonetta is so contentious. Sexualized images in our media are both subject to the same things real people are but on a much different level. The easiest way to think about is that a fictional character does not have agency. A fictional character does not act on her own steam, she does or says whatever the author (or authors) want her to do. This is why when nerds fall all over themselves to say, “Oh she’s such a sexy, strong woman, look how empowered she is!” I roll my eyes a bit. The author has made a character perform in that way and it means that it’s not immune from criticism in quite the same way a real woman would be regarding her own choices (which are still subject to criticism, I must interject, but it’s still her choice to do those things.) This is why media is such an intriguing topic to engage on a feminist level – we have to both account for the potential author’s intent but at the same time reject it past a certain point. Looking at media on a critical level as a feminist means both picking apart what makes it problematic but can also be celebrating how to derive meaning and enjoyment from it.

This is where we turn back to Bayonetta. She is both the product of a woman designer, who had her own goals for her, as well as a product of our feelings towards her as a character. Her contentious position in videogames comes with a much larger context and that is why so many different people have different opinions about her. I don’t think you have to be looking at it from one particular way to simultaneously hate it or enjoy it and the idea that to embrace Bayonetta means to completely embrace sex positivity does both the character and the concept a disservice. Because from where I stand, I believe it is possible to look at her position as both a potential power fantasy that we rarely see in videogames but also positioned squarely in an industry that allows so few woman characters to exist at all that it’s hard to ignore the sexual elements. It’s an industry in a society that still is controlled on many levels by men, especially sexual performance. Sexual nuances to characters are never apolitical in this climate and they go over about as well as sex in our society. We all have our personal experiences and struggles to consider when wanting to engage with this kind of content and that’s where my fallback onto sex criticism comes – I want women to feel free to reject or embrace as little or as much of Bayonetta as they choose. She’s the product of many people and is both a fetish object and also a rejection of the dehumanization that often occurs. She’s a mockery of masculine ideals of sex appeal and also panders to them at the same time. Bayonetta is both strong and is also subject to the whims of her creators. She flirts with kink and domination while also potentially being a man’s idea of what that means. It’s a confusing bundle of many things and that’s why there is so much disagreement.

In that way, I do agree with what Maddy said – I don’t think she’s solely positioned within the debunked male gaze, but I don’t know how we are supposed to perceive her. Women finding joy and excitement from her, as much as loathing or criticism, is valid. Until we start seeing a landscape more thoroughly populated with nuanced portrayals of women, more of whom are sent out into the world by women authors, I believe we will continue to have this conversation. I embrace it and would love to see more of it, as long as we’re not shutting out other avenues of criticism.

 

Escape Velocity

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Thelma and Louise picture courtesy of the Screenlines blog.

Sometimes you just have to trick yourself into thinking you’re going on vacation and while no one is paying attention, pack your car and head west.

It’s weird to think of leaving a game and its attendant community with the same gravitas as other more serious topics, but given how often World of Warcraft resembled a small town at times, it is an apt description. For a population of 7 million, it was incredibly insular in that regard. Instead of doing things for World of Warcraft, it’s been nice to focus on other things, particularly things that interest me, no matter what they are. I’ve been catching up on more television and movies with my boyfriend, as well as trying out way more games. Not having to maintain an audience who only care for me to talk about WoW means I can talk about anything I want, and interact with whomever shows up to listen.

I never thought I’d leave Warcraft. I thought about the day that I’d just end up being done and turn off the lights, wander away. I didn’t realize that it would really be me watching my pretty consistent enthusiasm for a game being ground into dust and my attempts to change things being stymied as I realized that a giant company doesn’t really have to care. Warcraft, and Blizzard if we’re being honest, is so massive that it has its own gravity. You either roll in towards it or in my case, work up the energy to fly away. It is a funny business attaching yourself, limpet-like, to one game and one game only and the whole method of criticizing the one thing you’re so intimately connected with. People resented me for my criticisms, but those same people were the ones I had to impress and cajole into listening. I grew increasing frustrated when I realized the only thing that kept us talking to each other was a thing I was growing to hate. I was playing the same game that I had come to despise over a number of months, wishing it would get better and then watching it get worse. I definitely wasn’t making any progress, and I wasn’t getting any better at what I was doing. I also was becoming a person I really didn’t like – resentful, angry and generally just bitter.

Everything looked like it would be better once I put enough distance between myself and Warcraft.  The reality is that it is and isn’t. I am a small country mouse in a big city now. (I would imagine some people would term it as “little fish in a big pond” but I am not nor consider myself such. I just know this is a different culture now where the land is way more unfamiliar.)

The larger gaming community is confusing and it’s been odd to disentangle myself from one population of people with a significant sexism problem only to run straight into watching the paranoia, misogyny and schisms happening all over due to gamers being angry that women like making games and writing about them. It did remind me though that trying to attack the problems with one game left me not focusing at how it’s a deeply connected issue to every other game that’s been made and the people who play them. It also showed me that the despite all of those fibers crossing back and forth, capital-G gaming is content to not overturn the rock that is MMORPGs and the shit that goes on there. This is one of the reasons that MMORPGs have such a weird, impenetrable barrier around them; they are a genre of game so all-encompassing and socially engrossing that it’s very hard to get out of them long enough to try other things, and the audience is okay with the larger world ignoring them.  MMORPGs are hard to understand unless you’re in the thick of it. Having been there, I understand that it is extremely hard to leave, and extremely hard to peer into it without feeling confused.

I guess this is at least one thing I do understand, this liminality. There’s a difficulty in making a promise to yourself that forever means just that, the end.  It’s hard to change present tense to past, to put down the road lines as you’re driving, trying not to outpace your expectations by the reality of the situation. I keep moving forward and away because it’s not cool to look at explosions. It’s also hard not to sound dire when I don’t even know if I’m running from, or to somewhere

Some days, it feels like a little of both.

 

 

 

Not A Photograph, But A Mirror: Sexism, World of Warcraft and Gaming Communities

A screencap of an item on Wowhead.com, called An Autographed Portrait of Jaina Proudmoore. It has flavor text that reads, "Before she went crazy."

A screencap of an item on Wowhead.com, called An Autographed Portrait of Jaina Proudmoore. It has flavor text that reads, “Before she went crazy.”

This is about a photograph.

But not really.

 

It’s about a fake photograph from a fictional woman, in the hands of a gaming company that made her, who also made her the butt of a joke.

But not really.

It’s about how we continue to talk about women, and how we talk to women in gaming spaces.

I had, perhaps naively, thought that when I quit World of Warcraft that it meant that I had a certain freedom to leave it behind and never talk about it again. But the problem is that even if I walk away from the game, the shittiness that permeates some of it and the community at large is still there. I still have friends and acquaintances who deal with this stuff. So while I gave up making World of Warcraft my 24-hour job in terms of combating sexism, seeing the continued effects of it ricochet around just makes me sad. In a positive way, it gives me a new freedom to address the subject in a more complete way.

Perculia, Wowhead‘s site director, is one of the more visible women in the World of Warcraft fan community. She runs a site that is the largest database for World of Warcraft as well as an informative news site about updates to the game. She’s good at her job herding digital cattle, whether it’s keeping up on news culled from developer’s Twitters, coallating data from a new beta patch or putting the massive amount of information in the database together in a relevant, clever way. She is an extremely important person in the game’s community as well as to the game itself – even Blizzard’s own employees use Wowhead to look for stuff. Despite not playing the game anymore, I still like to keep up with what she’s doing.

On Wednesday afternoon, she brought up a seemingly unimportant gray item that had come in the latest beta update for Warcraft’s Warlords of Draenor expansion. For those who aren’t familiar with the game, Jaina Proudmoore is one of the few prominent female leaders in the game’s canon, who has had many appearances in the overall world story of this popular MMORPG. However, her story took a bit of a turn between the last expansion, Mists of Pandaria as well as a tie-in novel, Tides of War. The powerful mage suffered a tragic levelling of her port outpost by an opposing faction using a mana bomb and has gone on the offensive since then, struggling with her own anger and grief. Whether or not she’s a moral person at this point is up for debate (as she also jailed and hurt neutral-aligned blood elf mages, staged military motions against the Horde) but within the game’s own lore, she’s not very different from other warring male NPCs with the same narrative prominence. However, many of the game’s players have taken Jaina’s turbulent actions since the bombing of Theramore as proof of her being “crazy” and have cracked jokes along those lines.

It’s obvious that this item is in reference to that, but despite protests from players that this is merely a joke on Blizzard’s audience, I don’t believe it. Jaina has become one of the more polarized characters in the game and there’s no mystery as to why – she’s a woman with extremely strong emotions. Prior to this latest character arc, she was powerful but she also was very loyal to a more pacificist, neutral approach to relations between the two factions in-game. Blizzard has done a pretty mediocre job respecting that change with nuance or sympathy, despite characters with far more morally bleak outlooks (see Garrosh Hellscream, leader of the Horde) garnering equal or greater spotlight and admiration. If Blizzard is cracking wise on their fanbase, which I don’t buy for a second, they would have to have a position distinguishable from who they are parodying. That’s how satire works.

One of the things that eventually drove me away from World of Warcraft is just that kind of jokey disregard for many of the under-utilized female characters that the game boasts as well, combined with an overall lack of understanding of their female audience at times. Seeing them continue to make little jabs like this at a character who’s gone from being made fun of for being a bookish nerd, to being made fun of as a “slut” because fans think multiple male characters were interested in her, to being too peaceful, to now being too crazy, is really disheartening. There’s also just the fact that underneath all of this is that she’s a woman, and that’s enough for players to dislike her. Having the company who created her undermine pride in who she is doesn’t send a very good message to Jaina fangirls as well as the rest of the community. What this really says is less about one particular fictional character but more about the real people who wrote her, the real people who thought this item was a good idea, and this has a ripple effect throughout an already pretty sexist community. Because it’s not really just about how we represent and treat fictional women, but moreso how it makes us look at real women.

Perculia bringing this item to light sparked not only enough discussion to get Warcraft to put in a fix immediately (to be updated in a future patch) but also a round of detractors, harassers and other miscreants who generally hate it when anyone criticizes the game, especially for reasons that have to do with things like sexism. That’s what this is, in case it wasn’t clear. It might have been a joke, but it wasn’t very funny to everyone and it was just another moment when women (and their mental health) were the punchline. Seeing Perculia deal with harassment for almost two days now over something that amounts for passing disappointment for a company she works closely with is more indicative of the problem than some flavor text. It might have been a throwaway item but over time little things like this just add to the constant river of shit you have to deal with as a woman trying to play this video game, if not video games in general. The item, as well as her tweet, has shown up on a noteable cesspool known as the MMO Champion forums, which stoked anti-“SJW” mockery and keeps bringing in fresh waves of people to berate her (but notably not as harshly to the devs who spoke to her about the change) or troll her about caring about it. It’s sad.

When I started poking at the larger game community outside of the insular crowd of Warcraft players, I thought that maybe some of the things I’d seen being an outspoken feminist would have gotten slightly better but then the last month happened and shattered that belief. What happens within WoW’s borders is nothing different than what happens when Anita Sarkeesian makes a new video. The only difference is that instead of finding lots of different female journalists, media critics or game developers to fixate on, WoW’s community often only has a scant few women who work for big fansites, post on the forums, or make fan works like YouTube videos. Instead of someone like Zoe Quinn being a target, I’ve seen people harassing Trade Chat on Twitter or post derogatory comments on Liz Harper’s editorials. I even caught a lot of flak when I brought up Ji Firepaw having sexist dialogue back in Mists of Pandaria. Big game companies have just as much responsibility to diversify their works as they do to make sure their fans feel safe discussing and criticising their company, especially when so many women (and other marginalized populations) put in so much time and work promoting their products and making them accessible to other players. I’d even say it’s a responsibility despite it potentially costing the loyalty of other segments of their audience.

At the end of the day, fans of World of Warcraft are no different than someone who writes for Polygon or makes indie games if we’re all talking about women. Gaming has a sexism problem, whether it’s towards real women or fictional ones and the two are intimately connected, no matter what we think. And as much as I’ve seen progress, we still have a long way to go.

Really.

This is How It Should Be

Adults on a concrete surface hold colored controllers in the air and move around.

Adults play Johann Sebastian Joust outdoors at BitBash Chicago.

 

The last three weeks have utterly destroyed me.

Granted, I’m not someone who had a hate campaign targeted at me, but watching women I considered to be at the forefront of games criticism being picked off, harassed, doxxed or quitting really took a number on my own sense of safety as well as my desire to be a writer in gaming. This slow-moving avalanche of misogyny reminded me of some awful things in my past and left me struggling to articulate feelings of helplessness as a woman, feminist and creative person.

In spite of all that, I was excited to be attending an indie games exhibition in Chicago called BitBash. Underscoring that excitement, however, was a touch of nervousness – what if I wasn’t “cool enough” to be there and what if there was drama? Still, I thought that getting a break from the constant misery-reinforcement on Twitter and various blogs was a good idea. I was also going to hang out with Gita, someone who’s work was incredibly enriching to me but also was a kick-ass lady to be friends with. In addition to that, she was also okay with hanging out with a weird Internet woman (me.)

We met up on Saturday and took a car over to the Threadless warehouse space in the Western Loop area of Chicago, not knowing what to really expect. We showed up and were greeted by a pretty welcoming sight: people milling around in the front parking lot playing games and having a good time. We had gotten there early enough so the food trucks hadn’t quite been set up yet, but late enough to make clear that the space was full of things to do and see. We had pushed our arrival later in general, as BitBash had warned of lines, but for the most part it was just the right amount of people and we had no problem getting in and milling around.

One of the first games I got to experience was Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik), which Gita had excitedly mentioned wanting to play since we got there. When I had read the description, I was confused, having no experience with the original game, and it seemed very abstract. Watching a bunch of people play it though, made me realize how fun it was. Even though I didn’t step in (I have a really intense performance anxiety), watching everyone flail around and move to get other people to shake their controller, appropriately controlling their speed to the slowed-down or sped up orchestrations, was incredibly entertaining. Adults playing and having a good time outside is infectious and isn’t something you see often, especially since many of us focus on hobbies that keep us inside, aloof. Not to be outdone by just peers, I even saw a group of grown men attempt to compete with a tiny little girl who was just as excited as them to play.

That kind of experience was indicative of what I noticed over and over again while we were there: everyone showed up. Gaming events have always felt very overwhelmingly white and male and this didn’t. Granted, there still were a lot of white dudes there, but many more people were that didn’t fit the profile. A highlight of this was notably how many women there were. Given recent events, it made the event feel incredibly safe. Looking around, I saw tons of women: working the event, playing video games, as well as sitting around chatting with each other. In general, it was a diverse array of nerdy people with splashy t-shirts with Metal Gear Solid or Doctor Who, hipsters with knit caps and flannel, as well as people who I’d probably see in my office. It wasn’t even the typical young, single crowd either. There were older people, parents with kids, and couples of all varieties. It surprised me, even as someone who’s crowed that “gaming is for everyone.” Seeing it happen as a bunch of people coming out to have a fun time really knocked that idea home for me.

Other than attendees, Threadless itself was another high point. The space was incredibly inviting for not just play but also relaxation, which I relished. I’m someone with a chronic illness and having half of it outside with benches and grass meant that I could take breaks to sit down, read my phone or generally enjoy the nice weather. Gaming tends to present a level of stimulus for me but adding in crowds of people (and it did get crowded inside at times) meant that it becomes a touch overwhelming, so being able to take a moment was appreciated. If I had to grouse about anything, it’s only that it needs a bigger space next time. Lines for the food trucks also presented a problem, as standing for long periods of time on concrete made comfort impossible. Overall, though, it felt nice that there were spaces to chill out and socialize if you needed a break. Gaming could do well to recognize this for other events, as I know I am not the only person who might need this sort of things.

Inside the store’s floor and warehouse proper is where most of the games were being exhibited. I milled around, elbowing my way past throngs of people, as most of the cabinets or laptop setups were close together. I regret to say that I did not play most of the games that were at the exhibition, but one that caught my eye was the Choosatron by Jerry Belich. The idea of a game being a Choose Your Adventure register printer was really unassuming and creative to me. I picked a story that revolved around the machine’s assurance that I was dead. Quietly, and with satisfaction at the simplicity of it, I folded up the tape of my story and put it in my pocket. I still have it.

Most of my time was spent watching other people play the games and that was fine enough for me. Something about games is intensely private for me, whether it is putting quarters into a machine no one is playing or sitting at my computer fiddling around in Diablo 3. The idea of people leaning over, waiting their turn and watching me gave me the creeps and reinforced this idea in myself that I’m still terrible at video games. However, this was mostly my own anxiety talking. No one was being rude or aggressive at any point during the event. Dying was a mirthful moment, and messing up got the usual face-palms and backslaps from friends. I got to watch one of the game’s creators (I believe) even cheering on participants who made a point of knocking over tables in Tango in Paradise Simulator (Andy Saia) by chanting, “TABLE TABLE TABLE!” loudly. While I was a touch sad I didn’t get to play Max Gentleman (Hats Productions) or Tango in Paradise, Crypt of the Necrodancer (Brace Yourself Games), getting to be a part of the overall experience was worth it to me. Everything about the space and experience was rewarding and gave me some part of myself back that I had lost along the way in the past month.

As Gita and I took a car back to her apartment, both of us remarked how positive the day had been. Both of us had felt a need for something like that and we had gotten it in spades. It was an enriching event that felt like the way games should be: fun and for everyone. Everyone from adults to kids had a good time, including two little girls that had just come from tap recitals and someone’s grandmother watching the Joust.

It was a renewing Saturday. It would have been even if in the wee hours of the night, Zoe Quinn hadn’t revealed that this feverish nightmare had been online misogynist brigades actually conspiring. It washed away a lot of the perpetually sour, negative feelings I’d had over the past couple of weeks and gave me at least one bright spot amid all of the rubbish. In the larger aspect, it felt like this is how I imagined things. I know it’s a little high-minded to wish for a utopian world where gaming could be for everyone, without harassment or guile or oppression, but for a few hours in a warehouse, maybe it was.

 

Ninja Pizza Girl and The Thorny Tangle of Girlhood

As far as indie games go, Ninja Pizza Girl has been on my radar for a while. I saw a video with the creators a while back and it seemed quirky, in a fun sort of way. The idea of an entire family starting their own indie development house is cute, especially with the father’s daughters pitching in to help with story and art. So when Polygon had an op-ed from the creator about the game, I took notice.

The crux of it is Jason Stark, the head of Disparity Games, relating precisely how and why Ninja Pizza Girl came to be. He talks about how the concept came straight from his childrens’ mouths but more importantly he  also describes the stumbles in his own assumptions about not only game design but also about his daughters’ growing vulnerability as they move into teen-hood and beyond. It was a bit of insight that I found intriguing, not so much as a gamer, but rather as a woman. It’s incredibly commonplace that men in the world, even ones closest to us, do not realize that women have these hidden narratives that they’ve never stopped to consider. It never occurs to them that our lives are in any way unique or different from theirs. The idea of relating this back to game design and story development is a smart one. Video games are one of the avenues of interactive media that could do so much better at peeking into the kinds of stories women navigate and centralizing them as important. We’ve seen so much discussion lately about the lack of women protagonists in games as well as a lack of women in the game industry. Allowing more women to be game creators as well as seeing ourselves represented not only reinforces the notion that we are human to the world, but lifts the veil on how our experiences might differ.

It is in this vein that I welcome Ninja Pizza Girl into the world – I believe that teen girls are one of the pockets of womanhood most needing of stories to be told (though I still feel the market is only making baby steps and still trends towards white, affluent and the like). It’s the father’s own admission of fault in taking his wife and children for granted and not listening enough that reminds me of the interview that we did on Justice Points with Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja. Steve said that one of the things he took the most care to do when crafting Gone Home‘s narrative was interviewing queer women about being teens, as it was not something he had personal experience with. Jason not taking this tactic from the start is something he admits fault to and through the course of the article, outlines his own steps to rectify this. This is good – men realizing that they need to listen to the women in their lives in order to actually understand them.

It was this listening that informed Jason’s decision to turn the enemy of the story from rival pizza ninjas that you kill to something far scarier – other teens working for a pizza corporation that would tease and humiliate you. The bullying and how you deal with it is what determines how much of the game you spend in a more gray, colorless world of your own depression or in a world full of joy and brighter hues. I find this mechanic, as well as some of the ways the game rewards you for handling it (running away is definitely an option) really interesting. As someone who was very viciously bullied from middle school onward, the idea of centering a game around bullying as not only a narrative struggle but a combat mechanic seems a very unexplored but necessary “hook.” What really woke me up to the fact that being a teen girl now was significantly different than my experience was the mention of the protagonist, Gemma, having to fend off bullies phone-cam recording one of her ultimate embarrassing moments. The cultural touchstone of recording video with your phone is not lost on me, but it shook me out of my own reminiscing. I never, ever had to deal with other people, people who were seeking to hurt me, recording things without my knowledge and distributing them to a very, very large audience. With the recent news of Jada and looking back to something like Steubenville, it’s on my mind that teen girls being brutalized is aided and immortalized by the advent of digital technology. It was literally not something I had to deal with when I was a teen. It feels like more so now than ever, we need to start seeing young women as people and less as props for tormenting.

It was these types of things, along with the story of a parent humiliating a teen girl to suicide on Facebook, that hung around my head as I read. I was wondering if Stark would talk about mens’ role in being both abusers and harassers to teen girls, especially given the opening anecdote, but it never came. It seems the idea of bullies in the game (as well as the article) stops at a generic “other teens” but specifically mentions his own daughters dealing with the politics of other teen girls. This quote specifically jumped out at me:

Little girls start learning psychological games at the age of eight and master them by the age of fifteen.

It specifically refers to his youngest daughter losing some of her female friends due to internal politics, something I think a lot of us can relate to, but Jason lacking an understanding that many of us have now. It was this quote in particular that made me somewhat skeptical of his ability to grasp the subject matter that he was building his game upon.  While he may recognize that the things his daughters are going through actually happen, the larger context for them is missing. It’s a pretty common narrative that women are intensely catty, psychological torturers and “girl bullying” is a phrase I’ve oft heard over the years. With the aid of the Internet, there’s been a lot of scare stories about a bunch of girls smearing the reputation of another girl for some real or imagined slight. What I never heard was recognition of is why this stuff happens; to truly understand why girls bullying each other, you have to admit that sexism is real and is internalized in women from a very early age. When girls hit puberty,  we suck the light out of them. They lose enthusiasm for math, science and just about anything else. They have the world’s sexual expectations thrust upon them without being asked if they want it or understand it. Girls become increasingly hostile and political among each other but it’s for reasons that Stark didn’t note, which implied a well-worn narrative. Girls tear each other down due to internalizing the messages that we as a society tell them every day from the moment we decide they are girls: that they suck. Not only that, but that every other girl is an enemy because there is a valuable and finite resource called “men’s attention.” We reinforce notions that women are catty, will steal your “man” and cause you not to trust them. We teach them to be docile, to not speak up and that their problems aren’t worth hearing about, let alone resolving in a straightforward or assertive manner.  We break them apart because it keeps them compliant and without a support network.

All of these things are why, despite chipping into Ninja Pizza Girl‘s funding, I will be keeping a close eye on how the game will play. Because for all of the things I think it could do right, Jason Stark’s good intentions but ultimate lack of experience with the narrative of growing up as a girl still will be lingering there. I don’t think ill of him for this, but it makes me wonder how this could have been done by someone who had to jump and fly away from her own bullies way back when.