Sexism in games remains an unsolved problem, it's clear. Some of you will be nodding along, and some of you will hear the s-word and roll your eyes and go, "Oh, this again?" You guys can piss off — go click on some new screenshots or a trailer consisting of a release date slowly fading into view. You're hopeless.
Sorry, do I sound a little hostile?
It's just that I'm shocked that grade-school concepts like "diversity is constructive" and "treat human beings equitably" are concepts that somehow still need championing, still need arguing for. I mean, really? I have to explain many times that the convergence of varied perspectives makes creating things-–like video games — more fruitful? Or more simply: You think boys' clubs are better than spaces where everyone gets equal respect regardless of their gender? What're you, five?
Whoa. Ugh. Sorry, I'm being confrontational again. I'm just really, really fatigued.
See, I've been a games journalist for a number of years now. Currently I am editor-at-large at Gamasutra doing industry reporting most days out of the week; I have a column in Edge and one at this here Kotaku (where I used to be a fulltime editor, fun fact!), I edit Nylon's games section, and I've been in OXM, GamePro, the Escapist, Slate, Variety, Wired and the Onion's AV Club. In just the last week I appeared on PBS, and NPR just recorded me for a segment on a program about my latest Kotaku piece. I've been on CBS, CBC, I've spoken at multiple GDCs and on more podcasts than I can count (even drunk ones, uh huh). This past weekend I went out partying for Halloween until 4am and then I got up and went to a design conference and I wrote like five articles while I was there. Because this is my job, always, all day and every day.
I work, you guys.
And yet on a regular basis I hear — even from you guys who write to me and describe yourselves as my "fans" (sidenote: be fans of the people I write about who actually make things instead of people who just talk about them)... I hear myself described as "one of the most prominent female gaming journalists", or as a "feminist writer". When you guys come up to me at events you want to tell me about things you've read or games you designed that I might be interested in because they deal with gender stuff.
Which, I mean, OK, is fine. Obviously I'm concerned about gender inequity and prejudice in the gaming space or I wouldn't have spent words to get us here. I've written a lot about sex stuff, too. But again, you guys: I work all day every day and have done so for years. I write about business models, gaming and art culture, gamified apps (just in the past couple weeks!)-–and so many of you still think my gender is my most important adjective.
I'm not saying you you, mind. I'm not going to assume that every one of you reading this article has even seen my byline before, let alone has distilled me to "female video game journalist" alongside any number of other zoo novelties. But here's a funny thing: Every time I open my mouth to talk about sexism, I am presumed to be speaking only "as a woman", and for all women. I'm not.
Oh, god, am I not. Wanna know a funny thing? A lot of women aren't too into my work, either, because I can't speak for them the way they'd like, or because I won't be aggressive about feminism and instead I just want to talk about video games sometimes, and, like, I don't mind the body physics in a fighting game or the sex in a sex game. And I really like Bayonetta! I'm sorry!!
I can't win. It pretty much sucks, and now you understand why I'm a little bit fatigued.
Sometimes people invite me to "women in games" groups, and I understand that it's important for me to represent. But often I hesitate, because I'm tired of being a "woman in games." I'm a person. There are a lot of other adjectives you can use that are equally germane to my work. It's a lot to assume, that I represent all women, or that it'd be possible for me to represent all women even if I wanted to. I feel entitled to be the kind of woman I want to be, and not have that be legislated based on what example my peers want me to set. I wish people wouldn't make a big deal about my gender at all.
And yet I can't even say that — "stop making a big deal out of my gender" — because the war against sexism in the video game space isn't nearly won. It is still a big deal. The war against all kinds of insular hatred in the game space isn't won yet. Gaming has been, forgive me, a predominantly nerdy shut-in white guy pastime for so long that people seem scared to discuss all the ways gaming could and should be a place where everyone needs to be acknowledged and invited, as creators and players and writers.
I mean, my friend Denis bares his soul in front of all of you last week because of his wish for less homophobic language in the competitive online space, and there were still people among you who left comments to the effect of "how is this relevant to games." There are still people among you who leave comments on Kotaku about Lisa Foiles' makeup, or when Kirk Hamilton says he likes Felicia Day's work you assume he's in looooove.
Really? How old are you? When are we going to grow up, as a culture? When am I going to stop being embarrassed to have devoted my entire life to this?
So. Yeah. Sexism is still a problem. And as a writer people still think I'm a novelty that needs "female" before my name. And they assume somehow that I speak for all women. No. Just no. Do you know how many emails I got the other week asking me "what I thought" of the copious use of the word "bitch" in Arkham City, following Kirk's article?
All Kirk said was that he thought "bitch" got said a lot and that it seemed weird to him. And I get all these notes from you guys wanting specifically to know "what I think", to the point where I felt like if I were to say "I'm not offended" people would feel somehow vindicated about calling women bitches, and the reverse of that too, to where people just wanted me to use my status as a female to vindicate their views on sexism, whatever they may be. And this happens a lot.
The funny thing is that these tedious conversations that surface — the word "bitch" in Arkham City, what the women are (or aren't, more accurately) wearing in Soul Calibur can you say this or that word, show this or that image, how important is the "feminist whore" Achievement in Dead Island — they don't help the battle, for me. It ruins my ability to communicate, because I'm combing the semantics of my writing, always paranoid that there'll be something in there to misconstrue, to freak out about and attack me.
These relatively small, isolated situational arguments get people's hackles up and distract from and inhibit a larger discussion about openness, respect and equality. It always feels to me like plugging leaks with fingertips, like quashing ants one at a time rather than kicking over the hill.
I mean, to me the solution is simple. Why argue about it? Why seek validation either way? When you're not sure how you feel, just err on the side of respecting people. That's how I, as one person in this space who happens to be a woman, would like to see us tackle sexism. It sounds so basic — but again, we're not supposed to even need to have this discussion in the first place. We're supposed to be civil adults, not sociopathic internet ragers who are systematically destroying any chance games might have of growing and of being taken seriously.
What I mean by "err on the side of respecting people" is this: when peers and friends speak up and let me know something is hurting them, I usually feel that the need to respect their feelings is way more important than obtuse arguments over someone's all-important right to say "whore" in a codebase.
When, for example, someone who's been a victim of sexual assault risks excoriating internet flames and even death threats to stand up in front of us and say "I find rape jokes offensive," I think it's just a lot better, more human, to try to understand and respect that person's views than it is to stridently defend your right to make a rape joke. Do you need that right so badly you're going to claim you're being censored if you're asked to demonstrate a little civility? I mean, who would answer yes to that?
Please don't write me because I'm female and ask me what I think about the next big gender controversy in games. Don't ask me if I think Catwoman needs to zip her uniform up or about some out-of-context inflammatory quote from someone or other or if it's "OK" with me if you use this word or that word. I am just so exhausted of these things. Don't engage in arguments and discussions that are ultimately about you seeking permission for your prejudices or pats on the back for your lack thereof.
As far as I'm concerned, tackling sexism in games seems pretty simple: Care for your fellow humans. When people say they're being hurt and ask you to hear them out, do it, Don't be a dick. If you really have anger issues toward women, get help. Seriously. If you feel confused when others seem opinionated or uninformed in the discussion, don't get angry or feel powerless or ignorant. Ask, talk, listen. The troll schtick is getting old. You don't seem correct; you don't seem cool. You just seem immature and insecure.
Listen to your fellow gamers, men and women alike, with empathy. Discuss with respect. You aren't ever entitled to discriminate against anybody for any reason. If you ever find yourself arguing that you are, instead of hearing out your peers, just get lost. Go back to arguing on your gamer forum about whether this or that game should have gotten an 8 or a 9 and let us move on without you.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, columnist in Edge Magazine and games editor at Nylon Guys, in addition to freelancing reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.