Editor’s Note: What follows is an open letter from author Tom Bissell regarding the response to a joke he made in his review of Skyrim for the website Grantland. The joke in question: “If you have no idea what the Elder Scrolls franchise is, you are probably either (a) an adult woman, or (b) the sort of person who once beat up the sort of person who likes the Elder Scrolls franchise.”
A good number of people were upset about the joke, which they perceived to be sexist. Bissell reached out to Kotaku about publishing an open letter in response to those readers. It follows below.
To my readers,
In a piece I wrote for Grantland about Skyrim this week, I made a joke about women, the intent of which was to make fun of dorky men. Unfortunately, my joke was interpreted by many people as objecting to the whole idea that a woman can or should play a certain type of game. So, in my ill-advised attempt to lovingly insult one type of person (the male nerd), I inadvertently and much less lovingly insulted another type of person (the female gamer). I was, of course, initially defensive about my joke. Who wouldn't be? But you can only read so many mean things about yourself (believe me, I pulled up and ejected before reading too many) before you ask yourself, "Well, do they have a point?"
So allow me to say, yes, people who were offended by my joke do have a point. One of the commenters on the Kotaku piece that covered the response to my joke mentioned a line in my book Extra Lives, in which I wonder if some attractive young women I saw at Ubisoft's Montreal office were either models or escorts. (It's somehow less funny in the original version.) I don't think there's a single line in the seven books and several dozen articles I've written that has caused me more cringing regret than that line. Honestly, I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote this. I seriously considered cutting it out for the paperback version. I didn't, because, well, I think you should live with the consequences of what you write. And here we are.
I know what's in my heart, both as a man and as a human being and as a gamer, and I know there's no conscious sexism there at all -- conscious being the operative word. I'm a writer: it's my duty to listen to and either heed the call of or sternly defy my subconscious. In this case, as in the escort/model joke in Extra Lives, I heeded a subconscious part of my mind I should have quite frankly defied.
Do I think there's a useless and exhausting strand of sexism running through gaming? Most certainly. Did I contribute to that without intention? I did. Do I loathe people without senses of humour? Very much so. But what I loathe even more is people who thoughtlessly propagate stereotypes and fall back on an easy gag for what they think is going to be an easy laugh -- which it shocks me not a little to realise is what I in fact did. That women gamers are in some way odd or fringe is not an attitude I have any interest in propagating. Funny thing: It took my propagation of that attitude to make me realise this.
I know this whole contretemps is a tiny blip in the long, sad history of Internet firestorms involving no more than a thousand or so people, but... all the same, something I wrote caused people real irritation in a way I did not intend. This is an especially vexing fate for an essay I intended to cause all sorts of other irritation. So to the gamers who were offended, male and female, allow me, please, to apologise in a non-defensive way.