[In this opinion piece, Critical Distance senior editor Ben Abraham discusses the controversial question asked at Melbourne's Freeplay games festival last weekend, "Where are all the female game critics?", and why "it's not enough to merely be 'against' sexism anymore".]
By now, many of you will have read and heard about the infamous 'game criticism' panel at Melbourne's Freeplay games festival. You may have read the passionate response by Brendan Keogh who bit his tongue throughout, and joined the audience in tweeting agitated thoughts. Perhaps you read Katie Williams' thoughts on 'Freeplay and that panel'.
And after all that, you would be forgiven for wondering, 'What's all the fuss about'?
The panel was called 'The Words That We Use' and involved four critics: Ben 'Yahtzee' Crosshaw (of Zero Punctuation fame), Alison Croggon (a celebrated literary and theatre critic), Drew Taylor (proprietor of the JumpButton game magazine and former PR representative for THQ Australia), and Andrew McMillen (successful Australian freelance journalist, most recently noted for his investigative work on discovering the inside story at Team Bondi).
The session was chaired by Leigh Klaver, from Swinburne University in Melbourne. There's no doubt it was a panel that had huge potential, and part of what frustrated so many was that it didn't quite deliver.
Given the panel's mandate of talking about language, culture, and 'the words we use', they could have conceivably gone in any of a number of directions. Yahtzee opened the discussion by suggesting that shorter pieces of criticism – a la Zero Punctuation – have the potential to 'permeate culture' more broadly than longer pieces that might take more effort to consume. The chair raised the issue of getting the tone right in criticism, and not being overly intellectual. Drew Taylor talked about the issue of managing the journalist/publisher relationship and backlashes from scoring.
But the issue that set the audience audibly sighing, grumbling, tweeting and shifting in their seats was the matter of the under-representation of women in the field of games criticism. When Klaver floated the issue to the panel, it was pitched as a question: "Where are all the female game critics?"
That such a patently absurd question was even posed reflects a wider problem: the relative invisibility of women. Because it's obvious to anyone actually paying attention that female game critics are everywhere. In the same row of the auditorium as me were two of them – one of whom won a Walkley Award for a piece of games journalism in 2010. Gamsutra's own Leigh Alexander has a public profile that eclipses many game developers. Rather than rattle off every female game critic one by one, I'll direct you to Gamasutra's 'This Week In Video Game Criticism' column, which regularly features many of them.
So why their relative invisibility? On the panel, Alison Croggon said it herself: women still face issues of inequality, representation, and (perhaps most importantly) power inequality. To stand out in a field of men, a woman has to work three times as hard to be recognized. The issue is broader than just games criticism. As Croggon noted, in her own field of literary criticism, which has had decades to mature and develop, the same issues persist.
But where does the issue come from? After all, if you ask any person, man or woman, whether they are for or against sexism, you'll find few proponents of inequality. Clearly it's not an issue of "intending" to be sexist. And yet sexism persists. What are we doing wrong?
Here's what I think: it's not enough to merely be 'against' sexism anymore. You, and yes I mean you, reader, need to change something. Probably it will start with your thinking.
Right now you may think 'I'm against sexism, but generally it doesn't affect me', or perhaps you're of the opinion that 'I don't think it's as big an issue anymore as it used to be'. But here's the thing – those 'opinions' are also claims, and claims can be tested. So let's test them.
* 'Sexism doesn't affect me.'
Well, I hate to break it to you men, but sexism actually affects you as well. And I don't just mean that it affects the women in your life that you care about (Have you stopped to consider the sexism that your mother has to deal with? Your grandmother? Your sister?). But more directly than that, here's a list of 'Five stupid, unfair sexist things that sexism does to men as well. Whether you believe it or not, sexism is affecting you, perhaps in ways you don't even notice.
* 'Sexism isn't as big of an issue as it used to be.'
The wage gap is just one facet of a complex and multifaceted issue, but it's illustrative of the point: sexism is still a big issue – big enough that it has identifiable effects on the economy. It's still such a huge issue that treating it as anything less is both damaging and dangerous, as it deludes us into thinking we can all just relax and stop the tireless and thankless work of fighting for equality.
Which brings me to my final, and most crucial point. It's not enough to just be 'against' sexism anymore. It's also not enough to just keep on 'doing your part', whatever that entails. Sexism needs to be challenged. If you are not challenging sexism on a monthly, perhaps weekly, or probably even daily basis, then you are not part of the solution – and as hard as it may be to accept – you're actually perpetuating the problem.
In the example from the Freeplay panel, it comes down to an issue of messages. At the end of the session, lots of people in the audience were justifiably angered because sexism (intended or not) went unchallenged. When sexism goes unchallenged, whether or not you agree with it, you are allowing sexism to perpetuate itself. Every time you remain silent, you are saying something, and what you're saying is that "it's not a big deal" or "it's not as big of an issue as it used to be." If you've been paying attention, you'll know that neither of these statements are true.
So when the idea that 'There are no female game critics' came up and wasn't challenged, it sent the message that critics who happen to be female are either a) invisible, or b) not worth paying attention to. Neither of these is the case. The fact that no one 'intended' to say this is not in question: who would even say that seriously? But that's the unspoken implication of the question, and the fact that it went unaddressed reveals, at best, apathy towards the issue, which is just not good enough for something so important. Apathy is not good enough.
Maybe you're not convinced yet. That's okay. But there is one request I make of anyone who I haven't persuaded to challenge sexism (or racism, or ableism, or homophobia, or a host of any other inequalities) just yet. It is this: when someone tries to tell you about the issues they face, how important they are, and how difficult it is to be heard and listened to and noticed, don't argue with them about it. Please listen to them, and hear what they have to say.
I'll conclude with a statement Alison Croggon made on the Freeplay panel, and its well worth listening to:
"…it's absolutely true that women face structured difficulties that men don't face. It's just a fact…you can just take it as read that if there's a woman's name attached to something it will attract less notice. It doesn't matter about the content at all. And if you want to achieve any kind of prominence, and it's still the case, you have to be three times as good as any man."
As game developer Ben Britten tweeted during the conference: "Gender disparity is a society wide problem, it would be great if the game community could be at the forefront of the change.." Similarly, Rob Reid tweeted from the conference that: "Gamers are problem solvers. Surely if there's a community that can figure out how to recognize the women amongst them it's us."
Gamers and game developers are some of the best and brightest people on the planet. If anyone can address this and other problems like it, we can.