To Whom I Have Offended: An Open Letter From Tom Bissell

To Whom I Have Offended: An Open Letter From Tom Bissell

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.

That women gamers are in some way odd or fringe is not an attitude I have any interest in propagating.

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.

Illustration: 44d/Pixiv


    • I love how the article sincerely apologising for a sweeping stereotype has a sweeping stereotype as it’s first comment. I don’t think a woman necessarily needs to be identified as a feminist to be offended by the comment.

      Keep it classy internets.

  • I’m a girl, I love Skyrim, and it’s not a big deal. We’ve all said or written things we’ve come to regret.

  • Props for actually apologising, but really, I think some people read too much into that one. It sounded completely harmless to me.

    • I agree… I’m a girl who is a gamer (none of this “girl gamer” BS) and I thought it was funny. People are just so uptight now days.

  • I dont think you can say anything without upsetting a minority. that being said, do you think they would have made the same fuss if a woman had said it?

  • I would imagine that most females that read that weren’t really that offended, just that they probably felt alienated.

    • That’s how I read it as well.

      Fantasy and science fiction have always existed in a fictional ghetto where people aren’t that happy to admit to liking it because it’s for those dweeby little boys with coke-bottle glasses. I’d have thought that the success of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings would have done wonders to show that this idea that if it involves elves and magic, there’s a very niche audience that knows about it.

      As someone inside the group, I’m annoyed that people still think that it is only for people like me. But I can easily see how anyone outside the assumed demographic is equally annoyed because of the implication that they aren’t meant to be enjoying something that they do enjoy by virtue of their chromosomes.

  • I’m a girl, and I also love skyrim as much as the next person. As far as the comment about women playing games, I’m really not that offended by it, out of most my girl friends I’m the only one who plays game, I can see where the joke was coming from and thought it was rather funny myself.

  • So much a do about nothing. All this effort and energy and how many lives were saved? How many hungry children were fed? How many diseases were cured?

    Let’s keep it real people!!!

    Why not spend the time to write to your government asking for air conditioning in all public schools or something and make an ACTUAL difference to society…

    • More to the point, the best part about all of this is that the man is clearly intelligent, and understands what it means to be open minded and empathetic. Lillee, it’s all good and well to sit here and say that we should argue about something that will actually make a difference… The fact is, when it comes to our lives, we kind of are… I’m assuming we’re all gamers here in one way, shape or form. Us being vocal about our opinions related to gaming are just as valid as a point anyone makes to a politician or lobbyist.

      If ‘society’ as you see it means so much to you, then by all means, go and stand up for what you believe in. I, on the other hand, am more than happy to keep my little life dug deeply into the trenches of the things I love. Music, games and writing.

      • All I am saying is that he aint the first Neanderthal to make a sexist remark about women. The guy is sorry, lets move on with our lives

        • >The guy apologises
          >call him a Neanderthal

          As for the initial reply, we’re on Kotaku, writing and reading comments! Why aren’t we working on a soup kitchen for the homeless instead? What’s wrong with us!?

    • I just checked the stats:
      Lives Saved = 29
      Hungry Children Fed = 18,006
      Diseases Cured = 2

      (Also, sounds to me like your judging Neandertals a little too harshly)

  • So while women in the middle east are being jailed for being raped and constantly in fear of having acid thrown in their face for denying a marriage proposal, female gamers are up in arms about a joke. Yeah… You have it tough ladies…


    • Although I think this is a good point – indeed we are talking firstworldproblems; I also think it would be wrong to not take up the issue. Just cos’ we are in a better situation than most / many doesn’t mean we forfeit the right to continue to improve. Surely?

          • Is it hard for women to ask to define a problem? or is it hard for a women to define problems?

            I don’t get what you are implying.

          • I was implying that, as a male, it’s easy to sit there and say that these kid of jokes and comments aren’t a problem.

          • Oh so… you think someone suggesting adult women don’t know what Elder Scrolls franchise is a problem? Gee, life must be hard for you females, so much harder then males.

          • From all the comments I’ve read and female gamers I’ve spoken to in the last 24 hours, it seems there’s only a small hand full making an issue out of this.
            I’m saying its a minor issue and the fact of the matter is the handful of female gamers who it offended need to move on, there are far worse gender inequalities in the world than having a journalist make a one lined joke about females.

          • Wow, you spoke to a few women? You must have the whole gender just about wrapped up then. Congrats on doing this!

    • “My dad got shot six thimes in the head”
      “Pffft! There’s a dad in Mauritius who got shot nine times in the head. Suck it up, baby”

      • “You do realise you’re only feeding your child once a week..?”
        “It’s cool, there’s heaps of kids dying of starvation in other countries, so it’s not a big deal”

        • “I got mugged and they stole $100 from my wallet”
          “Whatever, that’s more than some people make in a year”

          • “I murdered someone…”
            “Derrick Bird, Martin Bryant, Anders Brevik. You got nothin'”

          • No need to be immature about it. Fact of the matter is, a handful of females were offended about a joke, yet reading the comments section here I’ve seen a number of females who found it funny (and thusly were not offended).
            Fact of the matter is, there will always be a handful of people who are offended by a joke, you just need to get over it.
            Political correctness has gone too far

          • It’s not about that. If even one person is offended by something you say, you need to stop and wonder why. People need to care more, and stop being all “harden up, princess”.
            It’s about people feeling alienated in the culture they love. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of someone to see why they’re getting upset and thinking about what you can do to change that.
            Stop judging people for feeling the way they do and figure out how you can help them to feel more welcome.
            The “just a joke” attitude is ridiculous. Jokes which play on stereotypes can be harmful and if even the author of the offending article realises that, then why can’t you?

          • You’re clearly a moron and I only have enough spare time to write this insult. I’m offended by the females getting so uptight about a joke, therefore I expect an apology from them tomorrow on the front page.

          • so my friend in school who commited suicide because people made “jokes” to him about being a fag should apologise to you as well because he was hurt by jokes.

            if you make a make a joke about a bomb on a plane and you get arrested for it then held for interogation your saying you have the right to sue/demand an apology because everyone was offended at your joke?

            whose the idiot? that or your trolling. either way your hilarious Mr jokes

          • So because everything you say is clearly right and everyone else is wrong can you tell me why ponies are imba?

          • Wow. You are completely missing his point. He’s saying that when people are teased and being made the subject of a joke, that’s unacceptable. When a journalist writes a single sentence making an obvious generalisation in order to make a joke at the expense of himself and the MAJORITY of his fans, that’s a matter of perspective.

            People get offended and people don’t. People are right and people are wrong. We can’t all be right, and you will NEVER make everybody happy. This really is one of those times when it’s “feminist” keyboard warriors taking it too far. It’s not always one of those times, but the fact that this open letter apology had to be issued for something so innocuous is ridiculous.

            If a woman commits suicide over his comment then I will personally apologise to each member of her family for this opinion. If not, then we need to gain some perspective, learn to read the actual lines, not the imaginary things between them, and most importantly, stop projecting our own insecurities onto others’ words.

    • This. Also, I disagree with apologizing for this joke. It’s a joke, a very lovingly stated joke. There was no malice or hate in the joke. No apology necessary. Every joke you can ever come up with will be funny to some, and offensive to others, that’s life. It’s not what the joke is, it’s the intent behind it.

          • Kotaku web designer… your reply buttons work with an original posters button because it’s next to a div line and people can easily see that it’s attached to the name. But inside a reply thread, they float, so people are getting confused which reply button relates to which.

  • I found the original comment thoughtlessly sexist and exclusive – so thank you for posting such a thoughtful apology; it makes a difference (to me, anyway).

    • Thank god there’s somebody else on here that thinks he did need to apologise. The amount of derailing, gaslighting and general belittling of people’s genuine complaints in the comments is disheartening. But at least Bissell himself has apologised, that’s something.

  • He learned not to make jokes about dorky/nerdy women that day. How dare he! He should stick to his jokes about dorky/nerdy men. Because there is a majority so it’s ok.

  • Honestly, this guy just needs to step up and say, “Yes I wrote this, yes it was a joke, yes it was meant to offend people.”
    Far too many times we see people bending over backwards to please everyone,


    Political correctness is out of control…

    “no politicians were harmed in the making of this comment”

  • Why do people constantly have to beg and grovel for forgivness whenever someone claims the other offended them in some way? Being offended does not mean you are owed something, being offended by something is (or rather, should be) totally meaningless.

    I have much more respect for people who respond to cry babies by saying something like, it was just a joke, if you were offened tough shit, you read or heard something you didn’t like, get over it.

    People are offended by things everyday, almost all of those things are not offensive to everybody. This crusade the world seems to be on to stamp out people experiencing offence is a total joke.

  • I love the pigeon dating simulator at the top of the article. It has nothing to do with anything and it’s wonderful.

  • People that get offended for the sake of getting offended have won. If I was the writter I would not have apologised and infact told them to go Jump.

    This is all getting a bit to much.

  • Good apology, well written, lesson learned.

    To all those saying ‘pfft it was a joke get over it’, you have to understand how much impact a constant barrage of such things can have.
    Our industry is one that is actively trying to get recognised as something entertaining for everyone, and every time someone makes a ‘games are for boys joke’ it sets that back.

    I know many girls that play Skyrim, I know heaps more that play games in general. Calling them an anomaly isn’t doing anybody any favours.

  • It’s a fact that sexism exists in gaming.

    Those who feel affected by it should point it out, otherwise how do we know what is hurtful, denigrating or dismissive? Blatant and deliberate sexism has less need as the perpetrator knows what they did and most can point to it and say “that person is being a sexist jerk”. The more subtle and unconscious kind of sexism almost needs more attention as often (as in this case) the perpetrator has no idea of the effect of their words.

    Once they’re called on it, it’s then up to the speaker/writer to decide how to respond. In this case Mr Bissell decided that what he wrote was not who he wanted to be, he made a conscious choice to try and improve. This is what we need, more people to stop hiding behind the “it was just a joke” defense and honestly consider the fact that what we said hurt someone. It’s hard to do, we don’t like it pointed out when we behave in a way contrary to our internal image of ourselves.

    It’s not about whether YOU thought his actions were worthy of an apology or not, stop being so self centred. This is about Mr Bissell and what he wants to be and how he wants to be thought of and it is about a group of people who felt hurt or slighted by what he said expressing their feelings (which 50 years ago could not have happened). This is all a positive thing – I approve.

  • Did anybody stop to consider that he was right? He wasn’t saying that women can’t like Skyrim, or shouldn’t. He was saying that of the people who don’t know what Skyrim is a statistically significant percentage of those may be adult women. I can’t see any cause for offence there?

    Let’s say you take a sample group of 1000 people and you ask them what Skyrim is. The people who don’t know are then placed in demographics based on gender and age. I think the Adult Women group would probably be larger than some of the others.

    (I am male, and I don’t really play games that much. My fiancée on the other hand spends several hours a day playing games, but thought Skyrim looked boring)

    • But that’s not what he said, he didn’t say, ‘Some adult women’, he said ‘some adult women’, if I was a gamer girl who likes RPG’s, like say my 10 year old daughter who loves Oblivion and Skyrim, I’d be miffed at his wording. He made a generalisation based on a cheap stereotype.

      Also,. the fact you’re trying to mount a defence for something he’s admitted was wrong is also mind bogggling.

      • He said ” 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”

        Mathematically, he isn’t wrong. (Except maybe about the bully thing)
        “women 18 or older now comprise 33% of all gamers”

        It’s a FACT that if you are unfamiliar with the Elder Scrolls game you are more likely to be an adult female than an adult male. Sorry if that offends you, but it’s just maths.

        “Also,. the fact you’re trying to mount a defence for something he’s admitted was wrong is also mind bogggling.”

        I am mounting a defence for a mathematically supported observation. Can somebody point out where he said that women can’t or shouldn’t like Skyrim?

      • StereoTypes are the best type of humor though.
        Has everyone lost their sense of humor.
        Seriously, make fun of middle class white Tasmanians all you want. It’s hilarious, and I don’t even care, I make fun of myself all the time. It’s called having a sense of humor. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you are going to have a very sad life, and most likely didn’t all that many friends.

        • Yeah but Rob you’re a white male, you don’t have any problems in the world. You just cause them. You can laugh at yourself because you have never known the kind of suffering a third wave feminist has to endure. Do you have any idea what it’s like to wake up every morning and actually have to come up with a new cause to reiterate into the ground?

          These women, they don’t have the flashy, important, unifying causes like the first and second wave feminists have, they have to come up with new things the world is doing every day that’s preventing them from taking responsibility for their own success. It’s tough.

  • /slow clap rising to a standing ovation

    Wow, a reasonably and intelligent editorial apology that doesn’t negate itself with a final paragraph that reads like an extended, ‘Cooooooome onnnnn’.

  • It seems like these folks really need to learn to choose their battles. Sexism is a real problem in the games industry both inside and outside the titles that are developed, but getting all riled up over something so minor and innocent only serves to dilute the strength of the anti-sexist cause.

  • Thanks for the apology Mr Bissell!

    Thank you for both acknowledging that your comment hurt some people and baking this delicious apologycaek!
    (It’s also really nice that you’ve explained your process).

    a gamer. Who is female.

    It was clearly meant as a joke and if people can’t see that, then that’s their problem. Why was the sentence taken as him saying that if you are male, then you know what Skyrim is. Hmmm?
    If he had said “if you’re old, then you probably don’t know what Skyrim is” would people be putting up a stink? No. Why? Because most people would agree that not many old people play those types of games (or games at all) compared to others.
    The amount of women that enjoy playing games is still small compared to men.
    Did he stereotype? Yeah. But stereotypes usually have truth to them.
    Example. More men like watching action and horror movies, than women. More women like watching drama and love movies, than men. You only have to look at the box office sites which show this.

    Does that mean women don’t and shouldn’t play Skyrim or men don’t or shouldn’t watch love movies? No.

    Sexism can and does go both ways. Where are all the articles addressing sexism or jokes aimed at men? Just because someone is a man doesn’t mean the have a great, privileged life and have never had hardships or experienced sexism.

    Don’t apologize, or PC wins.

  • How many movies, TV shows, ads, ect display sexist attitudes towards men being stupid, dumb, lazy, nerds, cheaters, ect. Or make fun of them? Do I hear claims of sexism being made by either men or women? No, NEVER. I’d say men don’t complain because most really just don’t care.

    Or the view that men don’t like shopping or shouldn’t spend much time getting dressed or in front of the mirror. I’m continually made fun of by girls because I take my time getting dressed and spend time in front of the mirror. Do I care? No, because I know it’s a joke and because girls usually do spend more times doing those things.

  • If you’re going to be outraged over such a small comment because it was “sexist” then show the same outrage when it’s done to men and stop having double standards.

    REAL sexism can and does go both ways.

    Should comedians now not be allowed to make jokes about peoples race, religion, sex, beliefs? Or the many other things they make fun of, because it could “offend” someone?


  • My Mum has been playing videogames since the 70’s – she plays Elder Scrolls. My little sisters play videogames, I taught my little sister with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on Sega Mega Drive II – she plays Elder Scrolls. And my little little sister plays videogames too – Mirrors Edge being her current favourite.

  • Or another great example. I can’t count how many movies I’ve seen where the female characters claim that “men are like dogs and need to be trained” is that sexist? Where’s the outrage over these claims? That’s right, there is none.

    Fight real sexism where the real sexist pigs (both male and female) are.

  • “Not acting like an entitled shitheel” and “political correctness” are not always the same thing.

    Quite a few people here need to learn this.

  • I’m guessing I’m one of those “entitled shitheel?”

    Funny how my legitimate examples are ignored. Typical! Anyone who doesn’t agree that these things are a big deal and are blown out proportion are “sexist” “pigs” “privileged men”

    Please enlighten me with infinite moral wisdom.

    • You’re getting extremely defensive about someone else choosing to apologise to people he realised he’d offended. That isn’t slightly overreacting?

      • No I’m just getting annoyed at the constant articles about women who are offended by these small comments, which weren’t even sexist in the first place and was clearly a joke.
        And also that no one seems to give a damn when sexist attitudes are displayed towards men.

        He almost HAD to apologize or he would have continued to be demonized as a “sexist pig” and such. He should have just stood by what he said and that it was a joke.

  • Kudos for the apology man. But I don’t really see why people were THAT angry about it. I mean sure It was a little bit sexist, but most jokes offend someone in some sort of way. People need to be less uptight.

  • As a female gamer and critic, I didn’t think the original comment was malicious, but I did think it betrayed a lack of appreciation for the difficulties many women in the industry, and female gamers, face; probably, in this case, general recognition – I think there are some common themes and some things that specific people find offensive, for specific reasons. I appreciate Bissell taking the time to make a thoughtful response.

  • PS. I haven’t read Extra Lives, but at most press events I attend, people look confused to see me, initially, presumably because I’m a woman. 🙂 The times I have to bring one of my young kids along, is different again. One PR guy tried to direct me to the coffee shop. Another actually grabbed my arm and escorted me out of the event. Again, not malicious, and I’m not offended, but it’s telling.

      • I can’t satisfy your curiosity on either count, I’m afraid. I don’t take notice of what proportion of people at gaming events are women. I’m usually just trying to learn how to play a game and think of questions to ask a designer. As for the time when I was escorted out by a security guard… He took me and my child up stairs and around a corner while talking politely so I couldn’t explain that I was supposed to be there. I was surprised by what was happening and hadn’t prepared an “I’m supposed be be here” speech. It was highly embarrassing. I wanted to leave, but I’d promised to see people inside. I ended up waiting until a group of guys was walking past and put my head down and walked in next to them. Consequently, I wasn’t inclined to observe the door to see if he was directing other people out or not. I’m guessing that when he saw me sneaking in, he realised his mistake and didn’t do it again, but I’m not sure.

  • Personally, I don’t see how the whole “liking fantasy is for nerds” thing is okay to propagate, either. It’s just another part of the whole superiority complex that our society has encouraged for ages – the bully crap that everyone’s on about with kids.

    It comes from aeons ago, via the same great minds that brought you “reading books makes you a nerdy shut-in who never gets women.” Thanks, guys. You can rest assured that your insecurities are all vanquished and you are testosterone machines who are attractive to your desired mates. You will never experience loss, because you are such cool bros.

  • So some people were offended by his joke and it got under their skin – fair enough, bound to happen
    But why should he feel like he has to issue a 5 paragraph apology? It’s like the poor guy accidentally stood on a landmine

  • I can see it from both sides. I would say that, if someone is so offended, an apology is nice. But on the other hand, you can’t go crusading against every little thing that offends you. I just feel like a lot of people on both sides here don’t understand the argument of the other side.

    I don’t really think it was anything to get offended about. The whole stereotype, to me anyway, seems more insulting to men than it is to women. Yeah, I get that the industry is one with some sexism, and yes, I personally think that, since so many people were offended, it was the right thing for him, as a member of the community, to do. What scares me though is how PC everything has to be nowadays. It seems like you can’t say hello without inadvertently offending someone, and I think that’s really all that happened here. Read fareighnheit 451 if you want to see where being overly PC and tiptoing around everyone could get us.

    But, I’m really wondering whether I should have even contributed to this argument. I guess I’ll just say that it’s done, he apologized, let’s forgive him (those of us who were offended) and let’s all move on with our lives.

  • You guys are making me feel like an arsehole =( I didn’t find it funny and was slightly offended but mainly because the joke could be taken many ways. Every joke is open to interpretation but this one seemed to come off negative in every way. Maybe it’s also because I’m fed up with my opinion on games being completely drowned out. (Not on sexism in games but about games in general. They’re Zeldaist =( )
    However it is great that he realised it wasn’t just offensive against women, but also against men. (Bullies these days also play games as it is considered ‘cool’)
    He seems like a decent guy who made a mistake. He has acknowledged it and apologised. I think we can all move on.

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