Tuesday, June 4, 2013

In Where I Throw My Hat in the Ring...

I'd largely been avoiding this whole drama with Thunderf00t and his recent outlashes against feminists, most of which got him kicked off of Freethoughtblogs.  Main reason I was avoiding it is because it's something of a childish battle with both sides being partially right, and neither side having the maturity to own up to that reality.  Recently, however, one of the fields in which it had taken a turn was in regards to video games.  As a former game developer myself, I've seen all sorts, and it's hard for me to say I have never had any skin in that game.

Well, there's little doubt that the gaming community is filled with its abject lack of maturity, or at least it seems that way.  It's more accurate that the "mature" gamers are also the ones who tend to keep their mouths shut, so of course, it seems like the crowd is made up almost entirely of idiots.  But I think you can say the same thing about almost any online community,  so you've got a bit of a serious sampling bias here.  And the problem with all the people who have a problem with it is simply that they don't acknowledge that bias or look any deeper...  making them ultimately come off every bit as stupid as the communities they impugn.
Note that I'm not getting into the larger argument that Thunderf00t had been making about "feminism poisoning atheism" and all that, but confining specifically to the gaming community side of the argument.  So let me first start off by pointing out that this is a clear-cut case where the feminist in the argument, Anita Sarkeesian, is 100% guilty of making false extrapolations which are not grounded in truth, and yes, she is playing the victim a bit unnecessarily.  She's a victim of unwarranted vicious attacks, all right, but she was also throwing fuel on the fire.  But my counterpoint here is that Thunderf00t's arguments and his examples are pathetically weak.  There are good arguments to be made, but Thunderf00t is either making bad arguments, or he's making the good ones while supporting them very terribly and failing to elaborate.

Sarkeesian's claim that gamers want to maintain a status quo of male-dominance is indisputably false, and furthermore, her evidence of this is weak.  It is nothing more than her projecting her own dissatisfaction for the inequity projected onto others.  What is happening is that gamers, especially those who are going to post in response, are not very good at receiving criticism.  When you give them the impression that they are committing some ill that demands rectification, number 1) people are going to take umbrage at it, and 2) people are going to fear the unknown and undefined "change" you wish to bring forth.  Those more immature are likely to say some pretty horrible things, but the "hater" mode is pretty unfocused.  Indeed, she's correct that they seek to maintain a certain status quo, but a status quo of what is where she goes wrong.  They aren't really driven by something as specific as misogyny or even preference towards male dominance.  They just want the games they enjoy and the community with whom they enjoy it to stay as they are, and not be radically altered.  When you come at them with an implied accusation that something is wrong with the community, people are going to feel insulted.  Those who are more mature about it are going to realize that you're full of crap, and generally ignore you.  That's one major source of sample bias.

Sarkeesian's second problem is that she is, unquestionably, feeding the trolls.  She's deliberately drawing insane conclusions in order to elicit a response from the immature vocal crowd online, which she then uses as her evidence that these trolls are what she says they are.  It's precisely because of this that she'll probably get insults hurled at her about hoping she gets raped and so on -- most of these people don't really have the presence of mind to think of that themselves...  the idea was planted.  I'd challenge her to catalog how much of those types of insults came before and after she started making accusations of misogyny, and analyze what that says about the community.

The simple truth is that these people aren't really concerned with this sort of thing.  Especially online, where people don't really care whether the people they're playing with are male or female (and in fact, this is one arena where gaming has started to pull in more and more women)...  they only care that it's an enjoyable experience.  If you come in giving some sort of impression that you are threatening this, fear of change causes irrational lashing out.

Now, as for Thunderf00t...  this is embarrassing.  Anita brings up a generic statement about how many games seem to have this old-fashioned damsel-in-distress storyline, and that's misogynistic, and that it's problematic in today's society.  She's guilty of some hyperbole here, but the simple fact is that this sort of storyline is used because it's such an archaic cliche that it can easily be pawned off without need for explanation.  Thunderf00t mentions this much, but instead takes it onto the point of someone actually caring enough about a loved one to risk one's own life to save them.  Eh...  that's ostensibly true, but it isn't really much of an argument.  It's especially a mistake because of the fact that Double Dragon is pretty shallow on story depth to begin with.  Really, I think one problem here is that Anita took an old game that has more or less been remade with newer technology, so it carries with it the same basic structure of the old original.  On old games, you could have done better with an example like Metroid, where part of the hook is the fact that you're never actually let on that the main character is female until the very end...  but the problem with that is that the same character has been progressively sexualized in more recent iterations (Zero Suit Samus and all).  To be fair, I don't think anyone is going to say that female characters aren't overtly sexualized in video games, but it is also fair to point that this is not universal. Beyond that, though, motivations aren't as cut and dry as Sarkeesian makes it out to be, especially now as the attraction of women into gaming communities and social gaming is becoming a huge factor.
Friggin' hell, does she even have a spine?
I don't think anyone can look at Bayonetta (above) and not think this is over the top... and yet this happened.  I mean, she's an impossibly proportioned woman with guns in her heels and her name is literally "T and A" added to "bayonet", which pretty well describes the style of combat.  To add to it, she's technically naked throughout the game -- her "clothes" are actually a magic spell that compresses her hair into a pseudo-fabric.  Sarkeesian is the sort who would say that the fact that a game like this even exists proves that the gaming community on the whole is misogynistic, and objectifies women.  I would hear that and say, she's a little nutty, and a bit prone to conspiracy-theorist-level extrapolations.  Thunderf00t is the guy making the mistake of pointing out that at least Bayonetta is portrayed as strong and powerful and the storyline plays her out as a sort of compassionate surrogate mother of sorts.  All of that is technically true, but it's pretty irrelevant to Anita's crazed theory, as she's not strictly making statements about the games themselves as she is about the gaming community.

Now, it seems like a natural move to think that a company would only come up with a character like this because they believe this would appeal to the market at large.  Because of this, I can understand Sarkeesian's want to jump to such a conclusion.  But in this case, if she bothered to look a little deeper (which based on her videos, I have to say, I'm not convinced she did), she would have looked into the game's designer, Kamiya Hideki, a little more.  That guy gained some notoriety for trafficking in a lot of female stereotypes that seem like they came out of reality TV.  He also went as far as to describe Bayonetta as his ideal woman.  To which I have to say I'm speechless.  Something like that pretty well reeks of one individual's personal fantasies and fetishes thrown into a character design.  Now, you can say a lot about that individual designer, but what the gamers really tend to care about is the game.  If it was all style and no substance, there's no chance of success (which the game was in the end) regardless of what sort of personas you think makes up the community.  If you bother to look at the gamers, what they enjoy about the game has a lot to do with its gameplay style, which is fast twitch-action with a fairly deep and subtle combo system that is equally easy to pick up as it is difficult to master, and indeed, all of them tend to acknowledge that the stylized package in which it's wrapped is pretty silly on the surface.

But regardless of that, we need to go beyond individual examples.  You can probably say that there is a pretty large population of extremely hateful, and yes, misogynistic people in the gaming community.  More than enough to make Thunderf00t's "knitting club" analogy invalid, because what she's complaining about does exist to some degree.  And while it's also true that the admonishment of "don't feed the trolls" applies to Anita, that doesn't really excuse the behavior -- nor does the fact that said group who did attack her is largely made up of immature stupid kids, who are very prone to group-think more so than independent thought.  Where I think Anita's assessment goes wrong is her assertion that they do it in the interest of driving women away.  It probably had more to do with driving her personally away.  The tendency they had to throw out things like "hoping she gets raped" is the sort of thing someone would say specifically to be hurtful.  Yeah, people are that stupid and cruel.  The question worth asking, though, is not whether or not such people are there, because they could theoretically lie in any community, and I think most any open internet forum is pretty good evidence of that...  but where do they exist, what draws them there, and how these sorts of attitudes develop.  I wouldn't be surprised to find a lot of overlap with a lot of other negative social influences that also happen to correlate strongly with misogyny (e.g. religion, low income, low education).

Sarkeesian does, however, acknowledge the existence of a number of signs of improvement throughout the industry.  The current age has seen Elika in Prince of Persia or Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, who qualify as "damsels-in-distress", but the flow of the stories makes their unique abilities and knowledge essential to progressing through the game (i.e. the "big strong man" needs them, too).  We have the newly revamped Lara Croft, who goes from timid to fearless through the course of the game.  We have plenty of online gaming communities which largely welcome anyone and measure their worth by how well they play.  The "free market" also sees that games which appeal to both men and women are often the best sellers out there.  This is the sort of thing she's looking for, and that's fair.  I think the fact that gaming is becoming more and more ubiquitous these days will do a lot to make that happen down the line.  That said, I don't think that fighting against common tropes is among the ways to do that, because that is often not the core appeal of the games in question.  Anita's biggest mistake is that she's not really looking any deeper than the fact that the disenfranchising trope she identifies is superficially true.  Yes, Princess Zelda gets kidnapped and Link has to save her, but for the most part -- nobody cares about that.  The appeal that the game has is more about the puzzle solving and the working your way through a series of challenges towards a goal, and that's something that is fairly gender-neutral in its appeal.  Having worked on the Tomb Raider series myself, I know that a lot of the die-hard fans of the series hate the new Lara because she's not strong and cold-hearted from the get-go.  But for a lot of them, the problem is because they're so accustomed to the old Lara that anything new or different is inherently bad.  But the market at large is far more drawn to the new (as the sales figures clearly show), and I think Sarkeesian would agree that that's a good sign.

Yes, it is totally fair on her part to say that the way women are often depicted in video games and the way female gamers are treated by males in the community is pretty degrading and dehumanizing.  While things are generally getting better, that doesn't mean there isn't such a problem.  This is the sort of thing that being a "pop-culture critic" is well suited to identifying.  Where I have to start raising an eyebrow is the notion that the presence of all this is evidence of a sort of cultural anti-women undercurrent that imbues the gaming community, and either makes things worse or at the very least prevents things from reaching parity.  That is the sort of thing you can't just say based on the fact that an issue presents itself.  You need a larger scale statistical analysis and you need to start identifying biases and accounting for other factors, look at some meta-analyses that try to pinpoint other correlated variables, and also follow longer term trends.  Until then, what you have is nothing more than a baseless assertion.