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Game Culture & Liberty: Part II
by Richard Vaught on 11/09/12 07:33:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Game Culture & Liberty

 **note: I tend to write in the first person perspective a lot. Before you take offense realize that I am probably not speaking directly to or about YOU... if I am.. well.. err.. I guess I hope you enjoy your time being offended.

Flashback

In my previous article, I talked about the philosophy of liberty and the broad legal application of that philosophy as it applies to sexual harrassment and game culture. Today, I am going to try and tackle the more personal and emotional sides of this. I am going to try to do so as objectively as possible. If I manage to offend you, instead of flaming me with virulent replies, take a moment to stop and consider what exactly it is that you are offended by something that is not directed at you specifically, and then ask what you can do to change yourself, because you don’t have the right or power to change anyone else.

Drawing the Lines


Right from the beginning of this article, I want to draw some hard lines in the sand. There is a difference between talking about video games and video game culture. There is a difference between talking about the industry and the culture. There is a difference between talking about individuals and the culture. Finally, there is a difference between talking about a the vocal minority and the culture. So when we are talking about sexism, we need to be clear about what it is that we are talking about.

When someone talks about the culture, they need to realize that they are, first and foremost, stereotyping everyone within that culture, whether for good or ill. I have at times come under fire for criticizing certain groups such as the self-proclaimed neo-feminist segments(their term, not mine) for the way that they pursue the topic of sexism in video games and not swallowing the PC lines hook, line, and sinker. The primary reasons for my criticism are these: a) you can not be a hypocrite and expect to be taken seriously; b) you have no right to demand that others changes to suit your desires/beliefs; and c) no progress is ever made by appeasing the vocal minority. 

All of that being said(and I will elaborate more on it in a moment) there are some sexism issues in the industry, and there are certainly sexism issues in culture. Note I did not say sexists, though they certainly exists, but sexism issues. There are sexism issues in every industry and every culture. That statement is not meant as justification but as a means of setting a realistic baseline from which we can move forward. We can not eliminate sexism, nor do we have any right to. People are entitled to their own thoughts and opinions. Issues though, we can deal with. 

Yes, sexism exists absolutely everywhere. More importantly, it is important to recognize that it goes both ways. Don't believe it? Trying being a father taking your daughter to her dance lesson or your son to a co-ed gym for his gymnastics classes and see how long it takes for you to be treated like a sexual predator simply because you are a male in the the same vicinity as women. Seriously, I'm not joking at all here. It has gotten that bad. Men, regardless of whether they have done any thing or not are automatically assumed to be perverts, deviants, sexual predators, and worse.

Judging on Appearances..


Another thing that needs to be addressed is basic human psychology. People, no matter how bad you may wish it were otherwise, humans are naturally hardwired to base things on appearences, especially at first. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons but the most basic is the simple fact that the vast majority of our experience of that outside world starts with our eyes. We gather more information through our eyes than we do any of our other five senses. We use our eyes to pre-assess potential mates, to look for possible dangers, as the main source of communication(body language folks, it's important). Sight is our primary method of interacting with the world.  

If vision is our primary sense, it stands to reason that this is also the primary influence on many of our decisions, such as what products we buy, what people we associate with, what clothing we wear, what hairstyles we have, what car we drive, and most relevant to this discussion, what games we play. Gameplay may be king, but without visual appeal you are not going to get people to play your game to find out how good it is. It is like a fine meal that is put before you. If it looks nasty you are less likely to eat it. In fact, research shows that if it looks nasty your taste buds are pre-disposed to reject the flavor. Your eyes can alter your other senses! 

What does this have to do with sexism? When you are talking about game characters being sexualized you are talking about visual appeal, which is a major component in the extremely powerful biological push to find a mate. If you have an issue with that I suggest that you take it up with Dawkins, Darwin, or God, whichever you believe in. Men will look at women who are attractive. Women will look at men who are attractive. What people find attractive will differ based on their upbringing and the people that surrounded them throughout there life. 

That is not to say that visual appeal is all there is, though. Yes, characters, both male and female need to have depth. Why? Not because of any moral imperative I promise you. It is for the same reason that guys and girls alike will cheat on a mate, even if they find them ridiculously attractive visually. Time. Time is the great equalizer. The more time you spend with something the less influence your eyes have on the way your brain values that object. We are not talking about sex, we are talking about value. Over time, the novelty of an image begins to wear thin and the more analytical portions of your brain, those based around long term processing start to take over allowing you see the less immediately obvious character traits. The trick is, if the visual hook is not there to begin with, the observer is going to dismiss it out of hand without giving the time needed to form any more balanced assessment. 

The reason this part of the discussion is so important is because I have seen a lot of chatter on various blogs and forums and in different articles about the way female characters are 'sexualized'. What seems to be most often overlooked is that, on the whole, all game characters are sexualized to some extent or another. Can you honestly tell me that Commander Sheppard from the Mass Effect series is an accurate representation of the male population? No! The average guy does not have bulging biceps or six pack abs. We don't look like Conan, Spiderman, Superman, Wolverine, or any other iconic male characters. These characters look that way to provide the visual hook needed to engage the viewer. Similarly, characters like Lara Croft, Soul Caliber's Ivy, FFX's Lulu, and many others are all designed to provide a visual hook. The only purpose behind that visual hook is to engage the player long enough that they become drawn in by the other elements. 

The first time I played Tomb Raider I was perhaps 15 years old. Yes, like any other warm blooded male at the time, I thought that for a video game character she looked alright. But I can promise you that by the time I finished playing the game, I didn't even see her. Literally! I would run through entire levels of the game and not even notice the character was there. Would the game have had the same appeal if she had been a frumpy middle-aged woman running around with disheveled hair in a sweatsuit? Of course not! Because the visual appeal provided the immediate hook into the game. It is what drew players in long enough for them to discover and become engaged in the game play. 

Similarly, I have at times created female characters in other games. While I will certainly admit to having taken the time to craft their appearance to a certain extent, it was never with the intent of making a 'sexual object' out of them. I wanted to play a character that was visually appealing to me. By the end of the day, do you know what the result was? Normally within the first hour of the game I would have a camera set up that didn't even allow me to see the character and would most likely never look at the character again except for at character select screens. 

This is the reality folks. The average game designer is not trying to stereotype you. The average game designer is not trying to make their female characters sexual objects. The average game designer is not trying to make female characters that insult you. What they are trying to do is create a visual hook that will draw players into their game long enough for them to get hooked on the game play. If your characters, male or female, do not grab the attention of the player immediately then the player is not going to give them a second look which equates to lost revenue in terms of created content not being played.

Where we fall short as designers is in failing to follow-up on character building after the hook. There are a number of reasons for this, such as time, budget, ineptitude, or sheer laziness. Here is the key to a constructive discussion, though. This is something we can DO SOMETHING ABOUT!! We can build up more backstory, more character, more personality. We can do all of these things without sacrificing the visual hooks that our games need to be successful on the market.

The flip side of the coin is, to a certain extent, people need to realize that until the global culture-at-large changes to not idolizing size 0 scantily clad women, they are going to be a fixture in games because that is what attracts players. If we were making video games 3000 years ago they would all be size 12-18 women in togas and the topic of sex would be a thousand times more perverted than it is now(Oedipus anyone?). If it were two hundred years ago, we would be making games with women dressed head to toe, only head and hands exposed. You are not going to change the visual styles of the media of the day without first changing the 'eyes' of civilization and the cultural concepts of what is visually attractive.


Stereotype Me...Please!

I am always astonished at how an industry that is filled with people who have to at least have a passing acquaintence with psychology and the workings of the human mind often fail to acknowledge those workings when they present themselves. Stereotyping is a basic function of the mind. GASP!!! Say it ain't so, George!? Yes, it is so.

The human brain works by taking in a huge volume of data and breaking into simple models that it can work with. Why? Because if the darn thing had to process every single input at all times then it simply couldn't function. You would be stuck in a permanant catatonic state induced by exposure to too much information to be processed. Yes, your brain is designed to stereotype. Deal with it. More importantly, be aware of it.

The ironic thing is that WE KNOW THIS. We use this as a basic element in our game designs. How many times have you heard from your graphics team that one of the first things they do when creating art assets is to create a strong silouhette? Can you guess why that is? Because your brain ignores the rest of it! It only switches to detailed mode when you intentionally focus on something. 

Our brains, however, do not limit this functionality to visual stimuli. No, they apply it to everything. When was the last time you drove somewhere and then couldn't remember the drive? When was the last time you lumped a massive group of data into a single collective? When we talk about 'genres', 'styles', or marketing 'schemes', we are stereotyping. Sometimes we don't even know where something fits in, so we end up lumping it in where it may not fit. Other times we end up describing wildly different individuals as being the same. Kind of like saying the game industry is sexist. Hundreds of companies, thousands of employees, and even more when you consider all of the ancillary people involved. When you say the game industry is sexist, did you ever consider that, as a member of the game industry you are talking about yourself? How much moreso when you are talking about game culture, which includes all of the fans, players, retailers, parents, and anyone else who has ever participated in games?

Along this same line are tropes. I am sure many of you are aware of the now famous Tropes Against Women videos that I mentioned in part one of this series. The thing is, tropes by their nature are stereotypes. They are simple models for complex topics that are used so that we can readily communicate ideas with each other. Aside from the rather obvious point that tropes are tools and by there very nature neutral, they are also stereotypes and as such inherrently dangerous to use as labels because they do not accurately address the individual subject at hand.

There are many dangers inherrent with stereotyping, but the biggest is actually the way that it shapes are thinking. This was actually one of the same points that Anita Sarkeesian was trying to make, though she made the fundamental mistake of being a hypocrite in the process by stereotyping the people she said were stereotyping her. Stereotypes are a mental model that we create in order to function, and unless something happens to drastically disprove that mental model, we are going to continue using it. This is the power of belief. Once you start to believe something, you will sub-conciously attempt to assimilate every bit of data you receive into the the mental framework supporting your belief system. If you believe that video games are sexist, every thing you see will be interpretted in such a way as to reinforce that belief. If you believe that they are not, everything you see will be interpretted in such a way as to support that belief.

This is why we see such contention over certain things. For instance, the aluded 'rape' of Lara Croft in the latest Tomb Raider. If you believe the game is sexist, you will say that the game promotes violence against women and portrays women unable to defend themselves against sexual predators as well as turning Lara into a 'sexual object'. If you do not believe that, you will say that the backstory shows Lara to be a strong character by overcoming what many consider to be 'the most devastating act of violence that can happen to a woman' and coming through on the other side a stronger person. If you don't give a damn you might just think that you needed something to fill a mandatory 5 minute cutscene and think it absolutely no different than anything portrayed in thousands of movies, television shows, or books and could care less what it is about as long as you get paid at the end of the week. 

The point here is that before you open your mouth to criticize, ask yourself if you are actually being objective and critical, or if you are allowing your own grossly simplified mental models to do your thinking for you. 


Harassment

Harrassment in any form, regardless of the subject matter is NOT OK, and should not be tolerated in any decent society. Violaters should be hitched to a post and publicly flogged and humiliated for attempting to use force against another free person. Thank you, that is all that needs to be said about harassment.

Ok..So that is not all that needs to be said about it, but it is a good start. In my last article on this subject I talked more about harassment in general, particularly from a legal standpoint. Harassment is the use of force to intimidate someone in order to gain some advantage. Now, I know that the legal definition is a little more... um.. broad, undefined, vague, ludicrous, imaginative, stupid, etc.... but really harassment is the use of force. The only entity given the authority to use force is the government, and even then they are only allowed to use the force we grant them. 

So what about harassment issues in the game industry or the surrounding culture? Yes, I think we can all openly and freely acknowledge that there are issues. I am not going to say that harassment is a staple of the game industry because, like sexism, it exists in every civilization and culture. Harassment is about bullying. It has nothing to do with games. It has everything to do with people trying to bully other people to get what they want, whatever it may be. It is the resort of the insecure individual that is so unsure of theirself that they are reduce to diminishing or extorting others as a means of securing a perceived victory. Unfortunately, there is really only a limited few ways to deal with bullies, and none of them are acceptable in today's PC world. However, my own personal belief lies somewhere along the lines of either how Ender handled it in Ender's Game**, or the British Penal Colonies sans Antartica, take your pick. 

There is a difference though between agravating/annoying and harassing someone. There is a difference between hitting on someone, and harassing them. There is a difference between being uncouth, uncivilized, sexist, or any number of other socially unacceptable things and being harassed. For the love of god quit claiming that you are being harassed if you are simply being offended. There is a major difference between the two, not the least of which is that you have a right not to be harassed, but you do not have a right not to be offended. Got it? 

What's worse is that, if you are one of those thin skinned individuals that thinks being offended constitutes harassment, your thin skin marginalizes the REAL victims of harassment and makes it harder for those people that truly deserve it to get justice! If you are truly being harassed, having your gender, race, religion, personal beliefs or sexual orientation being used as a reason for excluding from receiving equal entitlements or having demands placed on you as conditions for employment or promotion that have nothing to do with your job then PLEASE get a lawyer and file a lawsuit and have your day in court. I support you 100%.

However, if you are one of those people that abuses this system by using it as a way to cover up your pour work ethics, lack of talent, laziness, ignorance, self-righteousness, insecurities, hate for your fellow man(or woman), or just your generally poor attitude, then you have no place in this world. You are the problem. You are not welcome. You are not wanted. Fix yourself and then rejoin civilized society. You are nothing more than a bully, only worse because you hide behind the pretense of being the victim. Your actions abuse the people that you accuse, the real victims that have to stand in line waiting for the courts to finish waisting their time with you, and the rest of society that has to pay the cost either in terms of taxes or additional cost at the cash register to support massive legal expenses for companies to protect themselves from the likes of you. 

As game developers, there are things we can do to take a stand against harassment, even though medevial torture devices are no longer a socially acceptable option. On our game servers, in our competition, in our workplaces, and at our events we can resolutely remove people who engage in harassing practices. Particularly practices that are not directly related to the nature of game play(i.e. verbal abuse, sexual harassment, bullying, etc.). If you don't want your name associated with that kind of activity then do not allow it. Make it public. Make it humiliating. Ban users and then publically explain who was banned and why. Will you make enemies? Absolutely! But they will be enemies you can afford to make because doing so will gain you so much more support from new and existing fans that the vocal, delinquent, undersireables will will not amount to so much as a blip on your profit sheets. Make a stand and draw your lines hard. Be principled and demand that those that wish to use your services do so in a manner that is in line with those principles. What they do at home, on their own time, on their own resources is not your business or your concern, but what they do on your games, your servers, your services is not only your business, its your BUSINESS! Don't let them ruin your business by driving away the more desireable elements of your games community. 

As an industry we have been too laz, too tolerant of these undersirables. As a civilization we have been to tolerant, seeking to appease everyone and compromising our own principles in the process. We have sold out for quick profits and short term gain, but all it takes to change all that is the will to act. 
 



**(For those that have never read Ender's Game[shame on you] Ender was confronted by several bullies, so he took down the leader and brutally beat him (and unknowingly killed him) as a means of ensuring that all of the others ones would never even consider trying to bully anyone again. I am not suggesting that we kill bullies, but rather that the action taken should be so severe that no one ever wants to have to go through that type of punishment ever, for any reason.)
 


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