Of Freeplay and Sexism

The entirety of the gaming world must have been discussing the “The Words That We Use” Freeplay panel in the last couple of weeks, and so it should have been; the ensuing hubbub has been enlightening, and it’s probably about time this topic was addressed.

Being a male (freelance) games writer puts me in the awkward position of wanting to comment on the proceedings, but without really knowing how. What can my perspective offer? Can I say anything that hasn’t been said already? If so, can I say it without putting my heavily-booted foot in my maw? It’s a sensitive topic.

So instead of addressing the topic directly, I wanted to respond to a couple of pieces that have been written in the aftermath. Foremost of these is the Ben Abraham’s Gamasutra opinion peice on sexism, because while it sounds passionate and heartfelt, I have some issues with its logic and I can’t quite shake the feeling I’m being preached at.

The ability to say something passionately doesn’t intrinsically mean it should be said. Just look at Tom Cruise.

In the piece, Ben’s final ‘crucial’ point asserts that “if you are not challenging sexism on a…probably daily basis…you’re perpetuating the problem.”

It’s an interesting angle to take: accusing every single person – male and female, though I get the impression the piece is distinctly targeting males – who’s not actively challenging sexism in some way every day, of making the problem worse.

Challenged by this forceful declaration from Ben, I have to ask myself, “Am I making the problem worse?” So I applied Ben’s theory to across the whole my personal conduct and the result was both startling and humbling.

  • I’m starving children in third world countries to death RIGHT NOW because I don’t donate to any charities like Community Aid Abroad.
  • I’ve never once chained myself to a tree in protest of logging, so I’ve actually promoted deforestation worldwide for decades.
  • I don’t have a degree in medicine and consequently have failed to save millions of lives with the medical care and research I could have provided if I’d pursued this career path. (Though I have worked to improve life-critical medical systems, so perhaps I’m somewhat redeemed here.)
  • I’m actively contributing to keeping our nation’s homeless and long-term unemployed on the streets by not buying The Big Issue.
  • Raging homophobia is obviously one of my severest conditions, because while I have some homosexual friends, I’ve never been in a gay-pride march.
  • I’m probably a racist, because I don’t EVEN KNOW what it is I’d need to do on a daily basis to support an attitude of anti-racism.
  • And I’m pretty sure that I murder unborn babies because not once have I attended a pro-life rally.
  • Oh, I also don’t like Vegemite, so obviously despise Australia.

The point is that I don’t agree with Ben. The kind of commitment Ben requires from us is a  career-changing one. It’s a level of dedication to the cause that excludes everything else.

However I have a sneaking suspicion his use of hyperbole was intentional, hoping to get people thinking and talking about the topic – not to necessarily impose a regimen of daily sexism opposition (though if you’re motivated into that action, it would hardly be a bad thing).

And in that goal I’d say he’s been successful. It must be; after all, here I am, talking about it. Unfortunately it’s also worded in a way that can make people quite defensive, and I think this topic has been handled much better by others – mostly by the female journalists who’ve responded.

The most important article, or response to this debacle that I’ve read is Katie Williams’ It’s time to stop being afraid. Tracey Lien and Laura Parker’s Kotaku article covers similar ground, and even though Katie might not have a Walkley award under her belt, I found this telling account of being a female in a male dominated university course touched a nerve Tracey’s and Laura’s didn’t.

Reading the sexist remarks made by the male members of her class, I was disgusted. Surely not, in this day and age? I wracked my brains, thinking: what could these males have meant by those statements? They must be taken out of context. She must have misheard; misunderstood.

As I kept reading however, I could find no justification, no context in, nor level on, which these ‘jokes’ could possibly be found humourous. No way in which this behaviour was anything other than offensive. Then I became worried. I mean, I had been in an IT course at university. It was male-dominated. It was even the very same university.

Had I, in my youth, with my friends, made similar disparaging remarks against the females in my course? Had I uttered some similar ‘witticism’ in a lecture theatre that had reached the ears of the object of my remark?

I’m eternally grateful that I have not been able to recall any such occurrence. I was friends, or in group projects, with a few of these women, so perhaps this assisted to temper any potential stupidity on my part. I’m not sure how I would have dealt with the information, had this soul-searching yielded different results, especially since women in my course were smarter and more capable than most of the males; more capable than I was, certainly.

But I digress.

The reason that I write this is firstly to say thank you to Katie, without whom I’d probably be ignorantly thinking the world is a slightly better place than it actually is; that the problem is smaller than it is.

I’ve probably been somewhat blind to the issue because the corporate IT world in which I work is full of women in positions of importance and authority, and they do their jobs well. I hadn’t really considered what it was like for them to get to those positions.

Secondly, it’s to ask that women reading this don’t remain silent when confronted with the kinds of situations Katie describes.

Thirdly, it’s to ask that men reading this recognise the difference between humour and sexism, and ensure they don’t engage in behaviour related to the latter.

I don’t think the solution to the problem is to be found in guys like Ben accusing the world at large of not doing better, especially when the tone is just likely to raise belligerent backs.

I think it’s more likely to be found in women like Katie speaking up. If her relation of these events can cause this inner turmoil, those few minutes of self doubt, for me, what could hundreds, thousands, of continuing accounts of this discrimination brought to public attention do for our societal consciousness?

But what do I know? I’m a late-twenties-something male who doesn’t challenge sexism on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis, so I’m probably just perpetuating the problem.


~ by accurateobservation on August 28, 2011.

5 Responses to “Of Freeplay and Sexism”

  1. The point isn’t for everybody to challenge sexism every day, but to challenge it when you see it and hear it – IF you want to help the situation that games find themselves in, in 2011. If you don’t care that (mainline, PC, console + handheld) games are produced by fewer types of people than ever, then of course its not your responsibility to fight for social justice. If you think games are getting better and the development environment is A-OK, then of course its not your place to fight.

    Ben overstated it a bit; not even a dyed-in-the-wool activist expects everybody to take up the torch. The question isn’t what do you do to help, but what do you do to harm? Sometimes – oftentimes – the answer is “Nothing, I’ve thought about it, and I’m not that sexist and I don’t have many situations where my friends say sexist things, get off my back.”

    Its been 15 years since major conferences for developers pointed out the horrendous situations that sometimes occur in dev environments, and some places are worse, not better. Its great you’re in a balanced environment and you recognise the impact on others of sexist behaviour – nobody is naturally (or legally) required to do anything but not discriminate, not make other people’s lives shit.

    • Thanks Christian, I guess the issue I have is the implication that doing “nothing” is the perpetuation of the problem. Doing “nothing” to me means not being pro-active, and I think that people can help to better the situation without necessarily taking it on as a cause. Even if that just means you pass on your attitudes of being “against” sexism to your children.

      But then is that considered doing nothing?

      To bring about a change any time soon, people really need to be active with the issue, and I’m not. I wouldn’t consider just saying “hey dude, not cool” to one of my friends if they made a sexist remark, a win for feminism. This is the kind of thing that I consider to fit under the category of Ben’s ‘against sexism’, which he says is not sufficient. Maybe I’m wrong.

  2. Hey Terrence, thanks a lot for putting down your own Freeplay thoughts too. I’ve really appreciated hearing others’ opinions on the issue, both from men and women.

    Ben’s article was strongly worded, yes, though I think he meant that sexism shouldn’t go unchallenged when it presents itself (which is actually pretty often – hence his probable meaning of ‘daily’). Your post actually has some similar sentiments to one that Jickle wrote a few months ago in his now-deleted Tumblr – he felt that he didn’t have a ‘right’ to call himself a feminist because he was not actively protesting on street corners or anything like that. I remember telling him that I felt even just calling himself a feminist was a challenge against sexism, and the sexist idea that feminism is only for ugly, bitter women.

    We don’t need to necessarily stand up and yell at a sexist aggressor to challenge him (though I was certainly thankful for Ben’s brave display that day). Most of us took to blogs and Twitter to do that, and I feel our impact was just as strong, and maybe a little more lasting, too.

    Thanks for mentioning my blog post on the subject. It’s funny how desensitised I’ve grown to such things being said; had anyone else written my post, I’d probably have trouble believing that things could be as bad, too. But I’ve learned to shake things off, and quietly file away such incidents in my head. Some worse things are still too painful or sinister to think about or discuss at length (you may remember me tweeting about some really creepy rape jokes, targeted at me, at a uni party), and there are others I’d rather not discuss until I’ve graduated. Only one semester to go!

    James Dominguez made the point that the people you end up working or studying with was really luck of the draw, and he’s right. I had the misfortune of being grouped with way too many immature first-years, but I’ve known lots of wonderful older students, and more recently, a lovely new breed of first-years too. These are the people the universities should be nurturing, because hopefully one day, they’ll be able to make a difference in the games industry.

    Same goes for teachers (Christian McCrea was always a fantastic influence for me) and games writers and journos (Ben, Tracey Lien, etc). They’re people brave enough to realise that there’s a problem, and that it needs tackling. They’re people I hope to see leading panels at the next Freeplay.

    • Like anything, feminism can be taken to extremes, and extremists generally ruin any cause they put their name to. While I don’t associate an image of skinhead, flannelette-wearing, lesbians with feminism, I wouldn’t have thought to apply the term to males – though technically there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be if males advocate female equality. I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on those other happenings, if and when you feel ready to publish them.

      I can understand the desire to find humour in things non-PC. It’s a separate issue, but to an extent I resent how politically correct we’ve become as a society. There’s a difference, I think, between being genuinely offended, and demanding the removal of Christmas decorations from public places because someone is “offended” at the religious connotations. So the more PC we become, the funnier I tend to find comedy that broaches taboo subjects. As I stated above however, I just don’t understand how those comments could be considered comedy; and I’m assuming they were meant to be jokes, not deliberate insults. I’m not sure which is worse in that situation: intent, or ignorance.

      A lot of the time these types of comments are made without the person really thinking about what they’re saying, and I hope your piece changes that for a few people.

  3. […] also a straight, white, male. My interest in a feminist view of gaming is relatively recent – since Freeplay last year, in fact – so I’m also happy to class myself as appropriately ignorant on the subject. That […]

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