Rock, Paper, Shotgun is a blog that I like to check in with from time to time. Written by four experienced UK game journalists, it focuses exclusively on PC Gaming (the fact that this still exists will certainly be news to major game retailers here in the US), the sense of humor resonates with me, and the focus tends to be thoughtfully eclectic.
Recently, one of the team, John Walker, posted an extended discussion of sexism in the gaming world in particular (that is both the world of players and the world of developers) and the tech world in general. (It is a lengthy article, but if you are a reader of this site you’ll be used to that by now!) Anyone involved with games who hasn’t been living under a rock (sadly, that actually excludes a lot of gamers, it seems, as will be seen in a moment) is aware of several general issues facing the gaming industry when it comes to gender. There is the persistent problem of the underrepresentation–scratch that, the massive underrepresentation–of women at every level of game development. While women make up a significant percentage of players in most casual gaming genres, they are still a distinct minority in many “traditional” hardcore gaming genres. There is a pervasive culture of harassment of women players in many gaming genres which ranges from downgrading women’s participation by treating that participation as unusual, to the outright abuse that comes from feeling women have no place at all in gaming. I’ve written several pieces for this blog that have looked at the hate-filled campaigns directed at women who have spoken out about misogyny in the world of gaming, or even at those women who have dared simply to offer an opinion on game design.
Walker’s article–“Misogyny, Sexism and why RPS isn’t Shutting Up”–makes no bones about its intentions. But the real interest of this article is that for a lot of people outside the game industry the most obvious question would be why the article was even necessary. So, you are going to continue to call out sexism and misogyny where you see it. Awesome. But, er, is there a problem with doing that in the world of gaming?
Oh yes. A big problem.
I have my metrics to keep me warm
The first problem, apparently, is even daring to write about anything mildly controversial when it comes to games. Walker spends the first paragraph telling us the other places where the article can be downloaded in order to avoid the accusation that he is just providing “linkbait” (for the uninitiated, that is flammable content designed only to garner website hits). This is the sorry state of affairs we’ve come to on the web at the moment. We live in the age of “metrics.” We have our “analytics.” These of course were originally intended to be tools with which to help us think but as is so often the case, particularly when it comes to information technology, large sectors of our society have decided to let the tools do the thinking for them. Particularly when it comes the online world, we’ve largely abandoned any reasonable attempt to assess quality or impact that doesn’t involve a discussion of “traffic” and “unique visitors.”
Empirical data is important. But the problems with these kind of metrics (or rather the superficial way that they are used) have been obvious from the birth of the Net. The mere fact that somebody linked to your article or clicked on a page says nothing about whether or not they actually read it. Already, of course, people are developing “better” metrics for Joe Web Page Owner At Large (these have of course existed for in-house evaluation for some time) to help assess how much time people spend on pages; these in turn run the risk of establishing an increasingly invasive surveillance presence in an environment whose infrastructure has already been designed from the ground up to involve systematic privacy invasions (cookies, etc.). In fact, in a weird instance of synergy, as I was writing this one of my friends posted a link on her FB page (speaking of something that involves systematic invasion of privacy) to this NYT article that talks about how online textbook manufacturers have perfected surveillance functions that can tell what students have read, what they have skipped and even, apparently, anything significant that students have failed to highlight (significance, here, being determined apparently by the professor; this illustrates the degree to which the claim that applying information technology to education inherently promotes interactivity is in fact a load of crap; no possibility here for student themselves to decide what is and is not significant, oh no. Who needs critical thinking when you can assign students a CourseSmart Index(TM)?). All of this, of course, is never described as surveillance. It is described as “tracking student progress.”
But this doesn’t even begin to address the more important question which is not whether people are reading something but what they are making of it and how it is influencing their thinking and behavior. Such concerns (not simply “what does it say?” but “what does it mean” and “why should we care?”) have long been the bread and butter of the humanities. The declining influence of the humanities in US colleges is not mere polemic, it is a fact, established by hard data concerning numbers of majors, size of programs, funding sources (both internal and external) etc., but also the more hard to quantify shifts evident on many campuses, including my own, where the humanities are often relegated to an antiquarian sideline in larger campus discussions, if they are even mentioned at all. If these trends are also evident worldwide, it makes sense that the interest in and ability to determine genuine influence of acts of communication appears to be fast disappearing.
Nowadays it is all STEM STEM STEM. I do think an interest in the promotion of STEM is important. . .if done for the right reasons. One of those right reasons is definitely not so we can build super soldiers in the upcoming trade and technology war with (fill in the blank; currently China, but in the future it will probably be India, then Estonia or Tahiti). The frantic concern with promoting STEM is also relevant to the larger issues of gender discrimination. Perhaps we should take a moment to consider if our enthusiasm for hitching our educational and cultural star to the STEM Clydesdales should be restrained until we’ve solved the persistent problem of how to get women participating in these fields in numbers that even approach gender parity? Or does our culture want actively to promote disciplines of study that have consistently disadvantaged or even discouraged women’s participation? Walker’s concern with avoiding the charge of “linkbait” indicates that while we have developed a fictional veneer that the interwebs have a humanistic and artistic component to them, the underlying structure of the Web, its code and its codes of conduct, were created by the Lords of STEM. As has been blindingly obvious from the first days of the Net, the underlying structure of the online world abets histrionic displays designed simply to garner attention, the kind of thing that our “analytics” are then set up to measure. After the Net came into widespread use the first major application was (in common with all new technologies) to produce and distribute pornography; the second major application was to use it to taunt others. This is the world in which an impassioned but considered piece of analysis like that from Walker could be considered by some as having been crafted merely to raise a site’s “look at me, ma!” index in the form of the number of hits.
The Rhetoric of Rage
Naturally there is more to this particular issue than the underlying structure of the InterWebs. The fact that Walker is having to defend himself at the outset against charges of linkbaiting (in a way that he would not if he had written an impassioned and considered article about, say, the evils of DRM) has everything to do with his subject. But the reason for my excursion into the problem of analytics versus analysis (and the problem of determining meaning) is that while Walker’s piece is about the evils of misogyny and sexism in the gaming world, it is also a deft dissection of the way certain groups of people try to use very specific language moves to shut down debate completely, bully individual participants in a debate, or to prevent debate from happening at all. It is, in other words, a piece that is about rhetoric as much as it is about hatred of women.
And make no mistake, hatred of women is really what is driving a lot of what Walker discusses in this piece. Anyone who followed the Hepler and Sarkeesian controversies should be left in no doubt that the underlying dynamic is not simply a gendered one but one based on an almost pathological rage that varies from the level of childish tantrum to full-blown threatening behavior. Walker approaches this question, however, through the more specific lens of why so many gamers consider it a terrible thing for a male writer and gamer to weigh in on these issues in order to attack sexism and misogyny (no one, as far as I can determine, appears to dispute the right of anyone to weigh in on “women’s issues” for the purposes of slandering and insulting women individually or collectively).
So Walker runs through the list of most common insults directed at him and his fellow writers (no surprises there; terms like gay, fag, mangina, and Walker does a nice job at explaining how most of them a) don’t apply and b) aren’t terms that he even perceives as insults). But where his analysis really shines is his discussion of the most common arguments he’s received for why he shouldn’t be talking about issues of misogyny and sexism on his blog; this article in fact could be a short primer for teachers who want to teach their students to a) be critical of, and b) not to use, precisely those arguments that pretend to be reasonable, balanced interventions in a debate about which the claimant pretends to care. Some of these claims to offer a more “balanced” view fail on multiple levels. Thus, the person who says “Well I know a woman who thinks X so you must be wrong.” This appeal to what is supposed to be a representative anecdote is as logically flawed (one woman thinks this so all must) as it is, in its own way, honest about the speaker’s worldview and reasoning: “I tend to make my judgments based on the perception that all women think alike so therefore the one woman who agreed to talk with me instead of running away screaming is representative of all women.” It is also, as Walker points out, deeply ingenuous. The speaker positions himself as pretending to actually care what women think, when the usual content of the speaker’s utterance is almost inevitably to deny that concerns raised by women themselves should be taken seriously.
Even more astute is Walker’s analysis of the apparently reasonable-sounding phrases like “why don’t you talk about men’s issues” or “people are exaggerating on both sides.” The latter in particular is something that is often uttered by people who would probably consider themselves liberal but whom are in fact neo-liberal (i.e. right-wingers disguised as liberals during the daytime). I hear it from time to time from my students, along with such perennial favorites as “everyone just needs to get along” and “everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” The reason why we can’t all get along (and shouldn’t) is the same reason why everyone may be entitled to their opinion but everyone is not entitled to have his or her opinion taken seriously: there are a lot of stupid people out there with some really stupid opinions. I challenge anyone who claims to believe that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” to spend half an hour on the forums of a large gaming site and see if their belief remains unchanged.
The one criticism that clearly grates the most with Walker and which he spends the most time demolishing is the charge that men who support the campaign against misogyny and gender discrimination just want to play the role of “white knight” in order to get laid. This comment, a ubiquitous charge directed at any man involved in any game-related arena who appears to stand up for ideals of equality and justice speaks volumes about the person uttering it. If you really believe that the only reason another man (and by implication you) would support the ideas of a woman is in order that he (i.e. you) could get a gratitude fuck out of it, then you are, quite simply, a broken human being.
The Web has a Gender
This is where I would push Walker’s analysis a little further. Obviously broken people like those bleating about “white knights” exist because our society is broken. As Walker himself points out, the kinds of comments he discusses have in the past (and today still are) directed at people of other ethnicities, members of the LGBT community and so on. They are invoked by members of a culture who feel a sense of their own privilege being threatened. And despite recent Nielsen data that shows that women are the slight majority in terms of the number of gaming hours being played on PCs, the problem remains that women are playing games that many men don’t consider to be “real” games, and that the culture of game development as a whole (from which many gamer take their cue) remains stubbornly imbalanced with regard to gender.
Recently Game Developer Magazine released the results of its annual survey of those working in the gaming industry, and its findings are thoughtfully summarized in a post over at The Border House, complete with nice graphs and charts in case anyone has problem with large numbers. I’m going to be keeping this article in my back pocket for the next time someone (probably one of my well-intentioned women students) tries to convince me that we are all happily post-feminist because “girls can do anything.” I had expected the largest percentage of women to be working in either the QA or the business and legal sectors. I was wrong (they make up only 7% and 18% of employees respectively). The highest percentage was, a little surprisingly, game producers (23%). Are those numbers tragically low? Wait until you hear the salary differentials. Male producers make a little over 8% more than their female counterparts. Game designers? 24% more. Business and Legal? 31% more. Audio developers? 65% more!!! Interestingly, the only area where women are paid more is as programmers. That may, however, be due to the fact that they constitute a miniscule 4% of programmers, and are receiving hefty recruitment and retention bonuses. That logic doesn’t apply across the board, however, since women audio developers also constitute a mere 4% of that sector.
Now we could quibble about methodology or the precise percentages and salary reportings. But there is no way that massaging those figures makes any of them substantially better. Moreover, this is hardly a new problem. It has been on the radar within the game industry alone since the 90s. Moreover, it has been on the radar of the culture as a whole for much longer than that, so it shouldn’t have needed to have made its way specifically on to the game development radar. . .unless that industry were so peculiarly self-involved and isolated that it didn’t notice what was going on outside its cubicle walls. As in fact seems to have been the case.
The game industry is not of course the only bastion of massive degrees of male privilege where women are treated like shit because of that assumption of privilege. Regrettably, my favorite past-time, cycling, is another of those areas. By pure happenstance, something that seems to have characterized the writing of this piece a great deal, an item popped up on my news feed yesterday that commented upon cyclist Peter Sagan who apparently thought it would be funny to grope the arse of one of the women handing out the awards at the Tour of Flanders. The particular article on Deadspin, a sports multi-blog site, did make a good point when it pointed out the fact that merely having so-called “podium girls” is in and of itself a problem and that most cycling fans wouldn’t miss them if they disappeared. I’m not at sure about that last point, actually. If you think about it, what on earth would make any professional sports organization think that it is a great idea to offer women as symbolic sex prizes for the winner of sporting events in this day and age? The fact that cycling is a boys club. Has been for years. Still largely is so. This is reinforced by the funding of race events and teams (women’s cycling, even in the US is shockingly underfunded, and in other countries it isn’t funded at all) and by media coverage (women’s races are almost never covered by anything other than someone with a malfunctioning handycam who uploads it to YouTube). It is reinforced by the culture of most bike shops (how many bike store salespeople are women? How many bike wrenches are women?). But it is reinforced by the more nebulous but powerful culture of “we’re all boys here, right?” that surrounds cycling.
In this regard, what is interesting about the Sagan article is not so much the article itself but the comments. The posters almost immediately start speculating about the reaction to Sagan’s act of sexual harassment over at the feminist blog, Jezebel (or, as one comment described them, the “Jezzies”). It is the predictable “this is all a big joke that the feminazis will take way too seriously” kind of thing that you get in a Boys Own world. But what interested me even more was this comment: “Oh, all the big, psychology-like words that will be spilled forth from Jeze. I want to drink just thinking about it.” There it is again, Walker’s larger argument about language. It isn’t just that we’re not supposed to talk about some things; it is that we’re only supposed to use certain kinds of language to talk about things. In this case, sports should only be talked about in words of one syllable. (Let’s try that: Red. Skins. Suck. Hey, that was easy! Doh, that was two. . .).
I want to be very clear here that the privilege upon which being a professional woman-hater depends is not (or at least, not only) the privilege to be derived from cultural status or economic security. In the culture of cycling (as opposed to the larger world of biking) the culture is very heavily biased toward those with substantial incomes: no mere mortal is going to see dropping a couple of grand just on a new system of gears for your bike to be a rational choice versus, say, paying to have the holes in your roof repaired. But in general the kind of privilege that we are talking about here is not tied to income but to being part of an insider group of technical knowledge specialists. Men want to be part of The Priesthood. This is of course rather ironic since we know that one of the things that characterizes many members of the actual Priesthood is that they are interested in extremely specialized knowledge, i.e. fondling your boy parts. Still, the lure of being the master of specialized knowledge in a world where membership is limited continues to have huge appeal.
Gamers are, as near as we can determine, a representative cross-section of the population (well, except for that whole gender thing). As such that meant that a tiny percentage of them are fabulously wealthy, and the rest are “middle class” (i.e. watching their real earning power melt away like the mint-scented ice-cubes in a hedge fund manager’s third pre-dinner cocktail). In no sense are most of them economically privileged. But being into gaming, into hardcore gaming, is to enter into a world of specialized knowledge: it is jargon, it is technical know-how, it is obsessing over your video frame rates and endlessly fiddling with overclocking your PC; it is mastering the arcana of easter eggs and being the one to prepare the holy scrolls of the Most Downloaded Walkthrough. The glamor inherent in being part of a community of specialized knowledge is in this case amplified by the fact that for so long gaming was in fact a marginalized activity, and marginalization lends any activity an aura of excitement. But those days are gone. Games have become mainstream even if, perversely, the mainstream refuses to treat them as such. As most major faiths have discovered, there’s a certain point where the fun and games to stave off the darkness and chaos start to take the shape of an organized religion. And as most organized religions have discovered, the aura of being special shines a lot less brightly if you are forced to admit 50% of the human population into the club. As I’ve pointed out before, the illusion that they are part of a special club that is now under threat is what drives so much gamer rage at women who dare to challenge their right to sole proprietorship of the Temple of Fun. But, if you want to feel special, get your mommy to bake you cupcakes. Of course, if she finds out what you just called that woman on Vent then the only thing she is going to be making you is a shit sandwich.
Gaming and cycling are not the only place where there is sexual discrimination, exploitation, and harassment of women. But when this happens in most other sectors of our society, people are called on it. The politician who tries to make a distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape rightly gets hauled over the coals. When the kind of dickhead representative that Alaskans persist in electing calls immigrants “wetbacks” then he gets hoist on the media cattleprod. But in the tech sector as a whole, this kind of behavior is not simply allowed to go unremarked, it is actively encouraged. The real lesson from the recent “Donglegate” controversy should be how surprising it is that there aren’t more such incidents. Yes, I acknowledge that there are other men like Walker working in the tech sector. But honestly, take another look at the data on women in the game industry; the fact that that data shows what it shows even years after people have supposedly begun to address this problem indicates that in larger part men sympathetic to the ongoing issue of sexism and misogyny in the tech sector are ignored by the rest of their male colleagues and ignored with impunity.
But there is one final reason that is ensuring that this issue of misogyny and sexism is almost impossible to confront. We have so much evidence now that a substantial proportion of our videogames are designed and marketed by members of the gaming priesthood in their own image. Unfortunately, that is also true of the entire technological apparatus of information that controls the way our culture attempts to discuss and respond to these issues. The Web has a gender, and that gender is male. Therefore (terrible pun coming), because it has a gender it also has an agenda. It was built by that same group of sniggering twelve year-0lds in men’s bodies that are out there trashing women and men who speak out about issues of inequality.
This is something of a turnaround for me. While I’ve always been skeptical of the technogiddies and utopian futurists (as skeptical, I might add, as I have always been of the prophets of doom) for many years I believed that the technology itself was neutral. Blame too much watching Star Wars as a kid; the force could be light or dark. People could take the play-doh of the technology and shape it any way that they wanted. But there are some very smart people who have argued, persuasively I think, that that isn’t so. Jaron Lanier for one. Lawrence Lessig for another. Each in their own way is showing that the underlying code of our information technology is not neutral, that it becomes the repository of all kinds of cultural mindsets.
Why do we have a web that makes it oh-so-easy to form the online equivalent of real-world gated communities, communities of specialized knowledge where all outsiders are a threat? Why do we have applications like Twitter whose design rationale is a hostility to more complex forms of language? Why have we developed a web structure where the fact that it so much easier to tear down than to build is given free reign? But didn’t it evolve that way because Progress dictated that was the Best Possible Solution? Of course not. You could imagine a very different kind of Web that made anonymity impossible; but the members of the Priesthood are shy and awkward in the presence of others, so they have designed their playground that way. Couldn’t you imagine an entire web structure where people were unable to comment on articles by default, or where comments weren’t even allowed? That would be a net gain both for civility and human knowledge (since reading the comments appended to just about any web discussion makes you less intelligent; brain cells actually die every time you click on “comments”). But the ethos of the Tech Priesthood is all about criticism and tearing apart and the macho “suck it up” approach. As far as the Tech Priesthood is concerned their preferred approach to women is “Tits or GTFO.” Naturally, they’ve built a structure that gives them plenty of the former and ensures that real women are left, by and large, only with the latter option.