Monday, March 5, 2012

Three Girl Rhumba

Look I promise the whole "name articles after songs" thing is not going be a pattern. It's just… it's fitting okay get off my back.

Anyway: women in video games! They make them, they play them, they review them… and apparently lots of people seem to have a very hard time dealing with any of that. If you were to believe the rest of the Internet, behavior towards women primarily falls under two major categories. One is the "white knight", in which you cannot agree with a woman or enjoy anything a woman does unless you want to have sex with her and think expressing your praise will lead to it. The other doesn't seem to have a particular name, but it generally involves verbal sexual harassment from a position of perceived anonymity. So let's have a look at three instances where the latter group made its presence felt and then see if we can't hone in on a cause!

Some people believe that other people believe this.

Case #1: Jennifer Hepler

I covered this already; I happen to think that she is an atrocious writer, and level my complaints about her abilities and creative processes plainly, as I do towards David Gaider. Mocking her body of work, and the ample store of public statements defending it, is a painfully easy endeavor. Ad hominem attacks and gendered insults shouldn't even be necessary, moral misgivings be damned. Unfortunately, the inability of the "Internet at large" to keep its composure over anything that involves the slightest inkling of gender politics derailed all criticism of Hepler's body of work.  In fact, much of the defense of Hepler took the "white knight" archetype and inverted it: the only reason anyone could possibly dislike Hepler was because she was a woman, and thus was a sexist and should be shunned and ignored. What proved even stranger is that, in the subsequent fall0ut from the closure of Hepler's Twitter short-lived account, even some of those who spoke in defense of Hepler managed to make a complete ass of themselves!

I wish I could say this was a Photoshop, I really do.

Case #2: Miranda Pakozdi (a.k.a. "Super_Yan")
I am not a fighting games person, and I view the community around with the kind of trepidation of Jane Goodall around a tribe of particularly territorial apes. As much as I respect the complexity of the systems and the skill involved with play at the uppermost echelons of play, the whole ancillary "scene" never sat right with me. The same puzzled bemusement I felt the first time I heard of Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel playing PC FPS games for a living still returns whenever I hear stories about Justin Wong not knowing how to drive a car (New York City upbringing be damned) or see footage from South Korean StarCraft team barracks/prison camps. Regardless, I think that if someone wants to try and maintain that trash talk is a vital element to the identity of a profession gaming scene, you can defend that while keeping it separate from asking a woman her bra size and comparing her losing at the game to rape at the top of your lungs. Enough has been written about this particular incident of late by people more invested than I am, so let's move on.

Too easy. NEXT!

Case #3: Abbie Heppe
If we were going to go over examples of not-particularly-progessive portrayals of women in video games, this would go on a while, hence sticking to real people. Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball had a sequel, so let's leave the software side at that. That people might have had problems with such things never really entered into anyone's discussion until the last few years, with a well-remembered flashpoint being Heppe's trenchant Other M critiques, and the still-somewhat-dubious reasons for her being "let go" from G4 amidst a sea of harassment. Of course, since the staff for G4 has been steadily adding Playboy models and former stars of hardcore pornography as presenters, it is possible that someone demanding less simplistic and objectivized depictions of women might not be echoing the party line.

There is no escape! This cable network will be your tomb!

So let's do what it doesn't seem many people have really done yet: look for an underlying explanation! Maybe if we find a good one, other things will fall into place. Naturally, I happen to have one handy. I'll warn you in advance it's probably not the one you want to hear... but it does fit uncannily well.

As far as intellectual pursuits from formative school years, there are prescribed gender roles for what little boys and girls like to study, and not just Home Ec versus shop class. Girls get the "humanities" or "soft sciences" (English, art class, social studies) and are supposed to want to go into something like psychology or teaching. Boys get "hard sciences" (chemistry, math, physics, computer science) and get to grow up and do… everything else. Specifically, things that don't involve the "innate desire to care for and nurture" that women supposedly have. Given that, only 200 years ago, a woman like Sophie Germain was barred from lectures at the École Polytechnique and initially had to correspond with the likes of Joseph Louis Lagrange and Carl Frederich Gauss under a pen name, it stands to reason that this pattern is more of a lingering prejudice than any flimsy appeal to biology would otherwise suggest. (There are, of course, many other "biotruths" people appeal to; unsurprisingly, they are almost all similarly disingenuous!)

Who's this fine broad? Ada Who-What? Never heard of her.

This goes into why video games are considered a predominantly male pastime, especially for the kinds of games that demand time investment to reach a certain level of skill or involvement. The amount of money involved in buying your way in also means that people who play are often middle-class. And given the demographic composition of most countries with the kind of sizable middle classes with that kind of disposable income, we can probably infer that most "gamers" are Caucasian/white. While we're at it, add on the predominant age range of people with spare time devoted to playing games; say, from 13 to 30.

So, in sum total, we have white middle-class men from 13 to 30. For all forms of media, this is a choice demographic which is mercilessly chased down for every last cent it is worth. It is one that is in a position of sociological power by virtue of not belonging to any particular minority group; to many they are a "default" identity. If you don't believe that this cross-section of society is at least where marketers know most gamers exist, think about where video games or computers get slotted in whenever it's time to talk about them on television. Chances are, it's on G4… or it's on Spike TV. Home of the much-praised 2012 Video Game Awards broadcast and such quality programming as MANswers.

It was "Can You Fart So Hard Your Balls Explode?" or this.

But there's one last piece to the puzzle missing. Thanks to the phenomenon of the "nerd" tied to video games, the target audience is still composed of the marginalized. Boys and men alike that society seemed to promise every advantage, and yet were not socially blessed with their "rightful place" by the machinations of a skewed society. That could certainly cause a chip in a few shoulders… maybe some latent resentment for women as either sources of rejection or invaders of the clubhouse.

How could you address it? You could pander the old-fashioned way and sell sex straight-up, like the heaving bosom, childlike doe eyes, encephalitic head and needy Stockholm Syndrome behavior of Elizabeth from the upcoming Bioshock: Infinite. Or be like Gearbox and bring back "booth babes" to PAX East 2011; let the naughty Catholic schoolgirl models deal with those audience members working their sexual issues out in real time. You can even make objects of desire out of members of your development staff or hired teams of high-visibility "gaming clans" like Ubisoft did with Jade Raymond and the Frag Dolls, respectively. Just, whatever you do, make sure they're not ugly and aren't going to rock the boat any and you should be fine!

Yes, my pretties, soon you will be mine...

Of course, when you do that, it's "only natural" to assume that any woman claiming to be involved in games is a conniving harlot bent on titillating you as an insidious lure for either product marketing or just being an "attention whore". (Keyword: "whore".) And since they couldn't possibly be one the developers, it's okay to grope them, since there are public situations where that's totally appropriate. Like a convention center floor for instance! Right, Allison Thresher of Harmonix?

This isn't an attempt to pretend society at large has worked out all its gender relations problems, because nobody in their right mind would try and tell you that in a world where wage discrepancy by gender still exists and Toddlers & Tiaras is still airing. But even at a cursory glance, the "nerd" community and its subdivisions still seems to be noticeably lagging when it becomes frightened and scared over concepts introduced in the 1960s. In the meantime, while the least of us grapple with the idea that women can have identities and feelings, here's to the day that the rest of us can finally pass Women's Studies 101 with a collective 'D-' and get on with the rest of our litany of collective problems.

No comments:

Post a Comment