Last week the Twitter #1reasonwhy hashtag gave everyone a wake up call. Sexism in the games industry is a real thing. It's a reality and we have to deal with that reality. For a long time it's been a issue that I, personally, have steered clear of. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, unequipped for the discussion, I've always been happy to let others do the talking for me -- but maybe that's a problem in and of itself. I decided to speak to Leena Van Deventer, freelance writer and games designer about the issues, and how we can all find a better way to communicate with each other.
MARK: Hey Leena, I wanted to write this article with you for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the #1reasonwhy hashtag on twitter – that happened. And it was important. For me, personally, it was an eye opener, and a real insight into what women in games media and the wider games industry have to face and deal with on a day-to-day basis. It made for depressing reading.
The second reason was the reaction to the #1reasonwhy hashtag. In some areas of the internet the defensive reaction to this wholly worthwhile discussion was shameful. I found that frustrating, I’ve always found that frustrating. I find it frustrating in the same way I find most stubborn, closed-up, turtle-shell reactions – if someone else says there is a problem with how they’re being treated, there’s a problem. You don’t get to tell other people there isn’t a problem. Not under these circumstances.
The third reason is a little more personal. In short: I don’t think I’ve taken enough responsibility for this. I’ve always been of the opinion that I am not equipped to discuss the issue of sexism in the gaming community. I’ve always felt as though it’s something I should avoid. Mainly because I’m a meat-head dude with no real understanding of the issues. In a sense I don’t really have the vocabulary to write about these issues and I’ve always felt as though it was an issue best handled by those women (and men) who do. I’ve always just said: I’ll take responsibility for myself and my own behaviour.
But maybe that’s not enough.
LEENA: The #1ReasonWhy hashtag was depressing reading, but I'm glad it was there. It's been bubbling away for a while and I'm glad it got the traction it did. I'm also super pleased to see #1ReasonMentors and #1ReasonToBe come out of it, too.
As with anything touching on sexism in our culture, I knew there was going to be an ugly side. The first wave was amazing to be a part of. Women standing together in solidarity against sexism was invigorating and fortifying. I knew people had my back, I felt like it was a safe space to have this discussion. It was nice to bask in that for a bit before the second wave hit. The second wave was the trolls. There's a few varieties of troll on that hashtag, most of them a lost cause really, but I was made very aware of a certain amount of men who were dissenting not because they were trolls per-say but more because they just didn't want this discussion to happen again. They were just over it. I guess it's easier to roll your eyes than hold out your arms and hug someone. Or even just listen.
Maybe it hurts too much to listen? I reckon there's a large group of men who dismiss these sexism discussions (and actively hate the fact they exist) simply because they're paralysed by not knowing what to do. Then that's uncomfortable and reminds them of their inability to help, so just becomes more and more frustrating the more it's brought up. I totally get that! It must be infuriating. Especially when you've done nothing wrong and get lumped in a category of absolute Jerky McJerkersons. (I'm tired of it too, believe me. So. Very. Tired.)
For what it's worth I think you do a terrific job of being an ally, even if you do feel powerless sometimes. You never swoop in and presume to tell women how to feminism, which believe it or not is insanely prevalent. The fact you feel like it's a discussion you should avoid (yet still consider it a discussion that needs to happen) means you realise how great the need for sensitivity around this issue is. Finding the confidence to lower your feet when you know you should be treading carefully must be super intimidating and scary.
A guy walking into feminist spaces to learn more requires a certain bravery. They have to acknowledge that they can live their life not giving a fuck about this, but instead they're taking the time to step outside the lens they see the world in and see things from someone else's perspective. That takes work! I struggle with it too.
Not everyone has to sign up for gender studies classes and study the history of feminism to help fix sexism in our culture. But a nice mixture of abiding by Wheaton's Law, acknowledging people's different lenses through which they see the world, and allowing these discussions to take place is a massive step in an awesome direction.
MARK: At Kotaku Australia we have a great community, we have a great group of men and women who can usually disagree and debate without getting too nasty. The sexism debate is one of the few exceptions. I've heard a few of our regular female readers mention they are scared to enter the comment sections of posts that focus on the kind of issues #1ReasonWhy raises. That makes me really sad, and it makes me wonder if Kotaku Australia really is the safe space I want it to be.
We don't have any real massive idiots here -- we don't have the kind of people who make the type of comments you might see on other game sites. But what we do have in abundance are people who will roll their eyes with a 'not this shit again' comment, or a 'Kotaku is a games site, this isn't about games' post.
But I really want all of that behaviour nipped in the bud. I want that attitude gone. I want our readers, male and female to realise that -- first and foremost -- Kotaku is a site about game culture, and this is a real issue in our culture. It should be addressed, it should be talked about, and we have to learn to talk about it in a civil manner.
I really want to learn how to have that conversation; and I want our male audience to learn alongside me. I think we're all part of the same problem and the only way we can move forward is to listen and empathise. If you have questions, ask them. If you're unsure of something, ask for it to be clarified.
But if you have nothing to say outside of dismissive, insulting conjecture, just stay silent. Go elsewhere. Because this issue is real, it's not going away and it's time for people to sincerely listen instead of burying their head in the sand.
LEENA: Well said! I understand how a lot of people roll their eyes and say "not this shit again", I can relate because I'm over it too. We're better than this shit. It totally bums me out. I just want to make games and do cool things and not have to constantly worry about that "other element" floating around ready to pounce. I don't want to take away anyone's toys. I just want to play with mine too.
One thing I've become aware of while thinking about this is how it's part of MY privilege to look at something and easily be able to say "oh okay, that's not for me" and move on. Maybe it's been ingrained into me as a woman who likes games that there are some things that are just not set up for me and that's okay. If someone relates to games as being a 100% perfect fit for them, a hobby that caters to them precisely, it's going to be really affronting and odd for them to have to consider something might not be for them within that realm. It's always been for them. What gives? So the ability to read a discussion on a topic you aren't interested in (on a site that has in the past catered to you personally very well) without chiming in with such helpful and constructive comments as "I DON'T THINK THIS IS A THING" and "We don't need to be talking about this shit" doesn't even enter their heads as an option. It's okay to not want to contribute to discussions others find important. It's NOT okay to think the discussion therefore shouldn't happen.
Listening is really important. It's why I try and put myself in the shoes of the people who have a problem with this discussion taking place. If I don't try and understand where they're coming from I have no hope of understanding the myriad of issues related to making this culture a more inclusive space for everyone. I can't fix anything if I just think people do jerky things because they're jerks. I think a lot of people dismiss the issue because they don't know what to do with it.
First step is to never dismiss it.
MARK: It's almost as if the whole debate is just mired in all these defence mechanisms -- instant reactions that just circulate and spiral until everyone is slinging mud at other. I've watched guys make sexist stupid comments in this discussion and get rightly shut-down for it, but I've also seen some guys ask genuine questions and get absolutely torn to shreds for not asking that question using the correct language. This has, personally, been the reason why I tend to tread extremely carefully around these issues and I don't think I'm alone.
People just get defensive first and ask questions of themselves later. Which isn't a very healthy way to debate or discuss anything.
Bottom line -- no-one likes to think of themselves as being sexist. A real groundbreaking moment for me was saying to myself, 'actually, I've said, done (and maybe even written) some pretty sexist things in my life. I'm not proud of it; I should really try and not do and say those things'. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all contribute to this and some self-awareness really wouldn't go amiss.
LEENA: Exactly. Defence mechanisms and straw man arguments and deflection is a way to silence people, to stop the conversation. That's bad for everyone involved.
To flip it around, just like you're sick of the people giving your gender or your community a bad name by acting like total jerks, I feel that way too about feminism sometimes. People can use the word 'feminist' to push an agenda that I don't find particularly feminist. There's people that "just don't get it" on both sides, making people trying hard to do the right thing on both sides very frustrated and annoyed.
But the key to dealing with this is communication. Shutting down discussion is NEVER going to help the "just don't get its" on any spectrum. You can't put your fingers in your ears screaming "LALALALALALALA" and expect to learn something. I try really hard not to just slam down people that are disagreeing with me; I give them the benefit of the doubt that they're genuinely curious. If they're going to be dicks about it or are clearly trying to hurt me then obviously that's a different story and I just don't engage. But I'm trying really hard to be open to people wanting to know more. I want to understand people's underlying reasons for not wanting the discussion to take place. I want us to have a dialogue about our common ground and how to coexist together.
Not to sound like a victim (because boy does THAT piss people off…) but if I (someone who has been threatened, told to sit down shut up and take it, told I'm not wanted, told I'd advance my career by taking my clothes off, told to get out of the culture I love, the culture I work in) can stand back and consider listening to people and perhaps opening my arms to them instead of rolling my eyes or calling them rapey misogynists and ceasing the discussion, then perhaps someone who just "doesn't feel like listening to this shit" can extend themselves slightly and do women a solid in letting them speak freely.
TL:DR: We can create an inclusive culture without the fabric of our artform tearing to pieces and everything we've ever loved turning to dust, don't you think? Let's talk about it.