Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One…
Game critic Anita Sarkeesian and her family were driven from their house earlier this week after she received a series of extremely violent sexual threats towards her and her parents. The week before that, game developer Zoe Quinn (creator of Depression Quest) had her personal life (both real and imaginary) strewn across public forums by an angry ex-boyfriend in an attempt to destroy her career.
Both of these terrorist acts–because what else do you call rape and death threats?–occurred because some gamers have decided that “…gaming and tech culture have been hijacked by Social Justice Warriors.”
Or that feminists “have to corrupt every single facet of our hobby that we bought up because they aren’t being victimised”
Or possibly because feminists would like nothing more than if “someone, preferably the state, take over the Internet and make it safer for lying, feminist con artists.”***
I don’t need to go into just how ridiculous and horrifying it is to respond to disagreement (even strong disagreement) with threats of violence and mental and emotional trauma. That’s been beautifully covered by many other writers this week, including Gaming Editors Andrew Todd and Tim Colwell.
Instead, I want to address the charge that feminists want to ruin gaming. Not because it deserves a response (it doesn’t), but because it’s a question I run into every time I sit down to write a blog post or participate in a podcast. What does it mean to be a feminist gamer? What do I want?
Lately, I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s powerful and engaging essay collection, Bad Feminist. In her essay “Feminism (n.): Plural”, she offers this beautiful quote:
“I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain … interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I’m not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying–trying to support what I believe in while also being myself.”
I don’t presume to speak for all feminists, or all feminist gamers. I don’t presume to speak for the other, wonderful, intelligent writers for Not Your Mama’s Gamer. Instead, I can only say what I (a gamer, writer, teacher, student, scholar, woman) would like to see as a result of the feminist influence on the gaming community.
I want more stories.
A lot of the fear I see about feminism comes from the idea that giving in to feminists means giving in to censorship. For some, that fear takes its shape in nonsensical arguments about threats to masculinity or stealing of power from one group to another, but there are more reasonable concerns, too.
Lately, I’ve had to answer the question of whether I felt all narratives should be didactic…should teach something. When I write about problematic trends or disturbing content in the games I love, I’m obviously hoping to see something change…but does that mean that these problematic topics should be removed from games in their entirety?
I don’t believe so. Maybe that makes me a bad feminist, but I don’t think it does.
Those who fear censorship could read my posts (or other feminist critiques, such as Sarkeesian’s video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games) as an argument to “clean up” narratives…to remove sources of conflict in order to avoid disturbing female gamers who play these games. But I believe women are made of tougher stuff than that, and most of us want a good story as much as the next gamer. It’s not that I want games to be without conflict or to always end with some moralistic theme. I just want more stories.
If you’ve ever watched bad horror movies, you’ve felt this. The creepy sound comes from the basement. The car stalls in a remote location. Eerie light can be seen spilling out from behind a closed door. And you sigh…because you know the characters are just going to walk straight into the trap anyway.
That’s what violence and misogyny is like for women in popular culture. The screen pans on some pretty young thing in a short skirt talking to a guy, and you barely need the music to start before you sigh and go “Well, she’s not going to last long.”
It’s old. It’s tired. It’s been done to death a million times.
Is this really the only way to write a story? How many more games do we need with damsels in distress, with sexualized victims, with rapes, or with shallowly drawn women who disappear after two scenes? The market is full of that already. This isn’t just sexism. It’s lazy and it’s bad writing. I want more than that. I want writers to explore the stories that haven’t been explored. I want to see the guy win the girl, and I want to see the girl win the guy. Or the guy win the guy or the girl win the girl. Or to say to hell with romance and kick ass with a sword and possibly a few choice explosions. I want the cliche and I want the innovation. I want to see gaming grow…not wallow in the mire of what’s come before.
Of course, there’s one other side to the proliferation of misogyny in pop culture, and it’s here that the bad horror story analogy falls apart. See, horror stories aren’t the only ones out there. There are plenty of movies where the car stalls and they call the cops and get a tow instead of wandering around in dark, haunted woods. There are plenty of stories where the conflict comes from romance or job issues or where it’s scary because the creepy ghost/monster/ax-murderer keeps coming even when the protagonists aren’t complete idiots. But there aren’t a whole lot of games or movies that don’t treat women like disposable objects, or that put minority characters in as anything other than token roles.
Here’s where I modify my earlier statement. I don’t believe that stories should be written to be didactic. I think they already are. We learn through narratives. When we are exposed to a whole bunch of stories, we grow. We learn to evaluate and critique and engage with people on many levels.
And when we’re only exposed to one story, repeated over and over and over and over, we learn from that, too. It colors our interactions, reactions, and judgments…sometimes in ways we never realize, because we know nothing else. We were never given any other stories to pull from.
So that’s what I want. Scenes of domestic violence make my stomach churn. Rape plots leave me aching inside for the victim–not the fictional one, but for all the real ones out there who have experienced that same helplessness and horror. But I don’t think we need to get rid of them. Rape happens. Racism happens. Death and crime and awful chance happen. These are the things of life and fiction both. But it can’t be the whole story. It can’t be the only story.
The goal (or my goal, at least) isn’t censorship. It’s finding new voices and letting them tell their side, too.