Stand By Your Mans

Tammy Wynette said “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” But nobody ever wrote a folk song about how hard it is to be a man. Not a straight, white, cisgendered man, anyway.

But it is.

Oppression is never just individual; it is systematic, too. That’s why it makes sense to say that reverse racism and reverse sexism don’t exist. Can an individual woman think men are all pathetic and worthless? Yes. Are there culturally accepted voices that shout these things out into the mainstream? Yes. But is there a deeply entrenched cultural and political dynamic which places all power, wealth, property, freedom and societal control in the hands of women? Is there a memetic belief that men are weak, useless, manipulative, and ultimately participants in and deserving of any and all violence directed towards them, however disproportionate in extent or occurrence?

No. Hell no.

But still, it can be hard to be a man. Especially now, and especially emotionally. The biggest killer of Western men aged 15 to 45 is suicide. The more successful feminism becomes, the more men too want to redefine the constraints on their own gender – and we find it equally hard to do so. Those constraints are loosening and changing, but into a blank page, leaving many confused. Back in 1982, Joe Jackson pointed this out with his incredible song “Real Men”. Yet still we hear the cry about real men. Real men are tough. Real men don’t cry. Real men don’t hit women. Just the other day, I was sharing this article that points out why men often fear female work equality: because without a well-defined role as the bread-winner, they feel worthless and ill-defined. Somebody responded “REAL men don’t fear equality”.

Real men aren’t afraid of anything, I’m sure. How dare I suggest otherwise.

Documentary maker Jennifer Newsom is working on a film called The Mask You Live In, tackling this problem: the way the world makes it hard for men to express any emotion, let alone weakness. It is an idea that is actually becoming more and more prominent, and some wonderful health and well-being campaigns are being set up to help deal with these problems.

But there are still things that aren’t being talked about enough, and understood enough. And being excluded from the all the things they are deeply connected to. Men can’t be feminists, I’m often told. At the same time, many young people continue to reject the term feminism because it doesn’t sound like it’s about equality. Feminism is a “women’s issue”, about fixing whatever problem women have. As if whatever these problems might be are as mysterious to us as the female reproductive system was to men of the previous generation. The old waterworks was important for ladies to look after, but not for us men to know of or speak about.

But that presents some kind of fantasy world where women are down in a hole of oppression and men are on level ground and once the women climb up to our level, everything will be alright again. Hell, we’ll even lower a rope, if we’re feeling magnanimous. It doesn’t work like that. Oppression is part of a system, and we men are part of that system. The way to fix the system is to break it apart, maybe even tear it to pieces. And that means things have to change, and change a lot. And that change is going to happen to everyone. You simply cannot change things for women without changing things for men.

It’s not just because women make up over 50% of the population. It’s not just because women are our mothers, our daughters, our wives, girlfriends, employers and employees, our doctors, lawyers and politicians. It’s because how we relate to women is part of how we construct being men. Or at least, it has historically always has been. Changing the role of women changes not just the roles of men, but how we define what that means, and who we are. We can’t talk about feminism without talking about men’s issues – and vice versa.

Nobody likes change, ever. But worse: what we get out of this change might suck. Certainly it will at first. Breaking down the power dynamic means sacrificing that power we enjoy, and the privileges we forget we even have. It might mean, say, finding your favourite game character has been replaced with women. It might mean feeling uncomfortable when all the girls at the Magic table talk about how they never date geeks because they are so ugly. It will certainly leave you feeling very confused about what you can and can’t say on a first date, if not about your sexuality as a whole. I know, I’ve been there.

Ladies will be pulling out the World’s Smallest Violin here but even though these problems are small compared to those suffered by women, and are problems we should welcome as they make things better, they are still problems – and we should talk about them. Because only by talking about them can things get better – for women AND for men.

All of this gets harder when you’re an ally, too. Allies are fighting for all of this to happen, so they really can’t be seen to complain. But allies don’t get cookies for their fight, and they often don’t get invited to the victory parade. When the game store has women-only game nights, the allies don’t get to go no matter how hard they advocated for them. And to get that, along the way, allies have to work hard. Being an ally is not just promising not to be sexist, and making sure you’re never “that guy”. It means challenging sexism every where you see it. It means speaking out even when you’re tired. It means, in some cases, leaving groups you enjoy or not buying products you want. It my case, I’ve lost friends and been asked to leave social groups for being too loud in my barracking.

Our friends, the Men’s Rights Activists, would say we do it all to try to attract women – what’s called White Knighting. And the truth is, it’d be nice if that worked, because who doesn’t want to attract women? But unfortunately, women are human beings who like people based on emotional connections and shared experiences, not because you slew a dragon, metaphorical or otherwise. Of course, we don’t tend to talk about any of this because maybe it would be sexist to even bring it up, assuming we even know how to bring it up, with anyone.

It’s a long list of complaints. But why list them? It doesn’t change the issue. It isn’t going to make us less dedicated to making gaming an open space. The answer is because we need to talk about the things that make it hard, because that’s the only way to get through them. And we want to get through them, because although it may seem, on the surface, that feminism causes a lot of problems for men, we want it anyway, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it also leads to men’s salvation. Feminism is about BOTH genders having a better, kinder, safer, freer space to inhabit.

So if we’re working towards equality, we should be talking about the barriers in our way. And when I say we, I mean men. Without ‘man-splaining’ or taking over, we need to talk to each other about these issues, without being afraid or ashamed. Because they’re our issues. And because we suck at talking to each other.

But to start talking, we need signs of support. And that’s what we’re here for. And by we, I mean the MESSAGE.

I keep coming back to issues facing men because that’s what makes the MESSAGE different from other groups building gamer equality: we’re a group for men, about men, supporting other men, helping other men and leading other men. Because making gaming equal is not an easy task, and being an ally is not an easy job. And because it leads us to a world where things have changed and will change more, and the only way we’re going to be able to deal with that change is by supporting each other.

If you’re a woman, men who’ve got the MESSAGE have got your back in making things better, because we know it sucks. If you’re a man who’s got the MESSAGE, then the rest of us have got YOUR back, because we know it’s hard. And we’re all in this together – men and women, Real or otherwise.

 

A Space For Everyone

As I said in April’s blog, I’ve been wrong before. Many times.

As a young GM, I once put a female gamer’s character in a highly sexualised scenario in a misguided attempt at satire. It was her first night at our table, too. I once argued loud and long against a change of forum moderation policy requested by the women of the forum to curtail certain recurring topics, as they found said topics disturbing and unwelcoming. More than once, I’ve argued for the right to stare and street-harass women, although of course I wasn’t phrasing it like that. More than once, I’ve argued for the right to use certain words, jokes or allusions, in certain contexts, regardless of how hurtful.

Then there’s the less overt mis-steps. There’s me continuing to work for roleplaying games despite their decisions to present some attitudes I found troubling. There’s me staying silent while my old boss goes on sexist rants and unfairly sacks women because I want to keep my job. There’s me being too shy to tell someone I’ve just me that their jokes are out of line. I’ve walked past a lot of bad examples, and as Lieutenant General David Morrison so recently and so eloquently said, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

I’m not saying all this to make some forced attempt to humanise myself or to soften my stance. It is simply to reprise the idea that none of us are saints. We’re human beings: complicated combinations of different emotions and beliefs and conceptions, not perfect expressions of our political ideals, however deeply and faithfully we cleave to them.

And social media makes this abundantly clear, because it combines our most casual thoughts with world-wide publishing, and does it so subtly we forget about it all the time. Everything we say on social media is a kind of publishing, to the point where it can be cited in academic literature, but we treat it like shooting the breeze at the bar. As a result, we as a species have gained instantaneous world-wide telepathy, and that has caused a few problems as we have at times revealed more than we might like. This is true both individually (as we mis-text our mothers about our sexual activities) but also collectively, as we now can see exactly what kind of views are out there. Before we could imagine, theoretically, that large selections of the populace were racist or sexist but now we can converse with them almost face to face – and keep their comments locked in amber for all time, in a way the spoken word never can be.

All of this changes our society, and that change is going to cause some birthing pains – again, both collectively and individually. Some harsh lessons will be ecountered – and perhaps some tolerance needed in the face of such unrelenting exposure of ourselves.

That doesn’t absolve us, however, from what we say. We owe it to ourselves to understand the systems in which we operate and the extent our voices can reach and to take those things seriously. We owe it to the world to educate ourselves about what we say and why they can be hurtful. And we owe it to those we hurt to do the right thing after we’ve hurt them: to apologise – apologise properly – and where possible, to make amends.

But we must allow people the space to do those things. And on the internet, with the speed it operates, that requires some patience. When you can complain instantaneously, it can seem criminal that the fix is not equally speedy. In the last month, many people complained to Kickstarter about a book promoting sexual assault among its methods for “picking up” women. But the campaign against the work came in with just two hours to spare, and Kickstarter believed it owed its users a fair hearing. Thoughtfulness should never be a sin, but in this case it meant the judgement came too late. But good things still happened: Kickstarter went the extra yards to apologise and Ken Hoinsky, the writer of the book – in reflection – has expressed concern that his book was viewed that way, and is now working with anti-rape and anti-abuse groups to make the work “acceptable”.

A similar internet storm erupted when webcomic Penny Arcade co-creator Mike Krahulik made some transphobic comments on his Twitter feed, after a controversial “anti-politics” seminar appeared on the roster for the convention run under Penny Arcade’s banner. At first he tried to say that his politics shouldn’t be a big deal, which was quite clearly a cop-out, and this was made clear to them when an indie game company made a public statement of boycotting the convention. This led to Mr Krahulik at last understanding that his words represent his company, and might be getting in the way of the good work his company does. So there was finally a proper apology, a reassertion of their welcoming values, and again, a wonderful act of reparation.

Both of these outcomes required time and thoughtfulness. Both of them lead it the “bad guys” turning into the “good guys” only by having the space to do so. It doesn’t always work like that, of course. A lot of times – particularly in the first few exchanges – each side erects walls of belief to protect themselves against the attacks. It is a testament to the maturity of Hoinsky and Krahulik that they were open to self-examination and humble correction. It is also a reminder to us all that those kind of good guy and bad guy divisions don’t always hold water.

At the same time, Fullbright were called out for overreacting to the Penny Arcade comments, for putting up those walls instead of giving Krahulik his “fair go”, and for turning against the large entity of Penny Arcade for the comments of one man. Yet if they had not done so (and done so in a reasoned, open and transparent manner), Penny Arcade and Krahulik might not have got the blow from the clue-hammer they took with such grace and style.

Politics is a harsh game, and everyone’s a critic – and passionately so. Stand for too much and you’re a radical. Stand for too little and you’re a collaborator. We we can get so caught up in fighting the good fight that we can end up dividing the world into good and evil, black and white, which can shut down all discussion. Yet at the same time, there are times when such emotion and belief is warranted, and shying away from it can is disrespectful of those who are really suffering or being oppressed. The issues we address are important, and they deserve passion and powerful voice. And those who feel called to speak strongly are often silenced and oppressed under the guise of the sentiment that their political invective is too harsh or too confronting or simply too extreme.

We do not want to ever silence those voices. But I can sympathise with those who find them so loud they frighten them away from the subject itself. I can understand the attitudes that gave birth to the PAX seminar that suggests that the rise in political awareness has somehow harmed the casual fun of the gaming hobby. I can see, by comparison, that NASCAR fans might be upset if all of a sudden attending every Sunday race day meant pushing past a tide of furious campaigners for electric cars.

And that’s not we want. We won’t surrender our views, but if politics drives people away so strongly, it can’t do any good.

There is a middle ground, however. To fight for gaming to be open and accepting to all without crushing all the fun out of life. Anita Sarkeesian starts her videos about sexism in the game industry by explaining – every single time – that you can recognise problematic messages in a work while still enjoying it. Likewise, I think we can have serious, important conversations about politics without people being afraid we want to take their toys away, or turn every game of Mario into a political lecture.

To achieve that, we may sometimes need a little time and tolerance. For the good guys and the bad guys, but also for the political and the non-political. The MESSAGE supports strong action, and will continue to call out bad behaviour, but we don’t have a magic compass that lets us always know what is right and wrong, or what the best possible response is. We won’t play games of good and evil that make people feel like they can never safely engage. We support people making their own determinations and finding their own path through the jungles of politics, as long as they too, are thoughtful, and listen and engage. We support Fullbright not going to PAX, but we also support those who choose to go and make it inclusive from the inside. Neither is necessarily the wrong call: that we’re having the conversation at all, and people are listening: that’s what matters. That’s what we stand for. Listening to each other, not erecting walls. Letting everyone in, not shutting people out. Speaking out, as loud as we can, but never shouting down.

At times, people may feel we are speaking out so loud it’s annoying, but until our voices can match the overpowering roar of the problematic status quo, we’ll keep doing it. We won’t apologise for that, but we hope those people will show us the same acceptance and tolerance we believe in. Because that’s what we’re fighting for.

The Sign On the Door

Last weekend, the MESSAGE crew were very privileged to be invited to the Lesbian and Trans* Community Group Showcase organized by the great folks at Queensland Association for Healthy Communities. See the photo below!

It was a humbling and inspiring experience to be surrounded by so many people dedicated to improving and enriching their communities. Of course, the MESSAGE itself did not have much to offer, because we’re coming from the opposite side of the equation. The people at Sunday’s event have worked to set up a whole range of wonderful events and groups and activities that are loudly and proudly welcoming of and targetted at those whose genders and sexualities don’t fit the common denominators.

The MESSAGE, rather, targets those of us who are the common denominators, both in society and in gaming: white, straight, cis-gendered men. Chances are, if you’re reading this, that is exactly what you are. I am, too. We’re the people with the privilege. The people who are, it seems, the problem. After all, all these wonderful people are trying to hide from us. They had to go and make special groups to feel safe and welcome, instead of just joining a group of cyclists, or joggers, or ultimate frisbee players, or comic fans. And they had to do that because they have – with good reason – fear of being attacked, humiliated and excluded when they try to join those groups.

That was my Saturday: being surrounded by dozens of people dedicated to providing spaces to get away from people like me. And the fact that that hit home like a hammer is the very definition of privilege. I get to go wherever I want, play whatever game I want, join whatever group I want, turn up at any space I want, without being afraid of being judged for who I am or who I love or the contents of my pants. And let’s be clear about this: in gaming, this is only true if you are a straight, white, cis-gendered man. And it is true for you everywhere. In effect, every game store, club and convention you have ever been has had a sign out front saying “We prefer customers to be straight, white, cis-gendered guys.”

You didn’t see the sign. But it’s there. It is absolutely there. Because everyone who doesn’t fit into those categories noticed the sign and went off to make their own space where the sign wasn’t there. They set up groups for gaming girls, and gaming mothers, and gaymers, and trans gamers and gamers of colour, and disabled gamers, too. There isn’t a game store in my city you can get a wheelchair into.

 Societies, groups and especially commercial entities always tend towards the norm. They always cater for the biggest groups, the general throng, the mean and mode of the population. We can’t change that. We can change attitudes, but that takes time and doesn’t effect the natural tendency of the norm to embrace itself and exclude the different. But what we can do, right now, is be aware that the sign is there. That invisible sign on the door that turns people away. And what we can do is put another sign up instead. A sign that says – and says explicitly – that our stores, our groups, our games, our spaces – are safe. That our gamers are allies. That our groups are welcoming. That we accept everyone.

And it has to be explicit. You don’t get to do nothing and still be the good guy because you know you’re not prejudiced. Because on the outside, you look just the same as everybody else. And nothing you’ve done makes you deserve an assumption of innocence. So you have to wave the flag. Be visible. Wear the t-shirt. Post the sign. Put it in the rules of the club, on the walls of the store, in the ads on the web. Wave the flag high, as high as we can, so everyone can see it, and feel welcome.

The good news is that because we are the people of privilege, we can raise that flag higher than anyone. Because there’s so many of us, we can bombard the world with our acceptance. Because we’re the norm, if we wear our colours, we can paint the hobby a rainbow. But we have to do it. We have to care. We have to wave the flag.

That’s what we’re here, as the MESSAGE, to try to do – to give us all a flag to wave. But it’s up to all of Acronyms, mofo, do you speak them?you to do the waving.

 

Spreading the MESSAGE

 

 

 

Getting It Wrong Is Right

“The thing about feminism is there’s always somebody to tell you you’re doing it wrong” – comic author Gail Simone (Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, Secret Six)

 This may shock you, but I’ve been wrong some times. Many times, in fact.

Much more often I’ve been called wrong. Being called out for doing things wrong is an occupational hazard for those who launch political campaigns or seek to raise awareness of issues. Every time someone new encounters your idea, there’s a very good chance they’ll be keen to tell you what’s wrong with it. Some of them leave their comments on our Facebook page, where we try to preserve them until they become abusive.

This is, of course, precisely the way it should be. When it comes to crusades, we must follow the lessons of comic books, and be sure to Not Be As Bad As Them. The only way we can be sure of that is to constantly check and evaluate our beliefs, our goals and our practices. It’s also important not to waste our time – or yours – with ideas that aren’t helping. Unquestioning optimism or smug moralising can actively damage a cause far more than apathy.

It’s also a vital part of any philosophy or movement, to ensure it remains relevant and important. An idea as big as feminism, as revolutionary as feminism, as new as feminism must and should be constantly questioned, and analysed and examined. It is such a big, new and revolutionary idea that it certainly cannot be expected to comprise only one idea at all, in fact. It is a large concept that everyone can and should have thoughts about and reactions to, and discussions arising from.

Perhaps the best thing about being called wrong though is it can be the whetstone that sharpens our ideas. That is to say, what matters less is being wrong in the first place, and rather how we respond to it. Twitter has recently exploded into a small firestorm as some radical feminists have been accused of being wrong in their exclusion of transwomen from their movement – to the point where they lost a venue for their 2013 convention to the glee of the anti-feminist Mens’ Rights Activists. Their response in many cases has been to up the ante, and declare transwomen to be the enemy, and even state they are spies of the MRA, keen to practice “corrective rape”.

I must also point out that others provided a more measured response, which in particular talks about how the branding of the entire #radfem movement as being anti-trans has created a huge divide that in the end has just kept women away from important information and shared involvement – to everyone’s detriment. Ultimately, that is the risk here: that adding barriers to who can or can’t be a “good” or “bad” feminist ends up weakening everybody. What’s more, the moment you start erecting walls and saying who can and can’t come into your club, you are definitely heading towards being Just As Bad As Them.

A month earlier over on this side of the pond, Helen Razer, a noted feminist author used her blog to accuse Jenna Price, a noted feminist campaigner of being wrong. This was due to the latter’s “Destroy the Joint” campaign being onanistic and misplaced; a convenient middle-class rage-masturbation aimed at straw men and hollow targets, diverting effort from actually smashing the tools of patriarchy and focussing feminism on the violence of men and the poverty of women. Ms Price responded with an article of her own, providing her smashing the state credentials, and talking about how small social media rage-masturbations are part of a larger tapestry, and that each hollow target called out is a tiny victory if only for the woman marginalised by it.

Both sides made excellent points, and the real glory of this event was in the overall exchange. Ms Price’s thoughtful reply gave her a chance to clarify her position and sharpen her drive. The lively discussion made headlines and prompted discussion around the country, and all discussers were pointed back at Ms Price’s rebuttal, where she made it clearer to everyone – and to a now far wider audience – the goals of Destroy the Joint, and the context it operated within. Not only was the message improved, but it was spread further. Even if it led to a few raised voices on the twittersphere, there could have been no better outcome. Nobody was excluded from anything, and the frank exchange of big ideas left everyone more enlightened.

As I said at the beginning, I get accused of being wrong all the time, in my role of running and promoting the MESSAGE. Every time I introduce it – which is what promoting it involves – somebody will ask about our motives, or our methods, or our goals. Many of them will pick holes in these things, finding what they consider obvious flaws or clear problems (which of course we have not spotted ourselves), sometimes just as idle conversation, other times as philosophical debate, still others as outright attacks. But I welcome them all, because every time I get asked something, I get better at providing the answers. I learn more about why we’re doing the MESSAGE, and how we can make it work. And I learn more about how to explain that to people, and get our message across.

 And sometimes, the wider discussion takes things even further. On one Facebook group, a male member lamented that our ideas – while laudable – were futile, because we were always going to be preaching to the converted: that the “good guys” already knew how to treat women, and the “bad guys” didn’t. This made me realise just how important it was not to divide the world up like that, that this was putting up the same kind of fences of exclusion I desperately wanted to avoid (and I’ll talk more about that in my next blog). I gained a clearer idea of what we needed to do and how do do it. 

In his comment however he didn’t actually use the word “women”. He referred to female players as “gamer girls”. And one of his fellow members spoke up at that point, pointing out how she found the prevalence of that particular infantilising epithet to be demeaning and prejudiced. A brief discussion – including apologies – ensued. And, as they say in family-friendly sitcoms, we all learnt a valuable lesson: that sometimes when you think you’re right, you’re actually wrong.

And I learnt, once again, just how important it is to be told you’re wrong. Because it’s the only way to get it right.

Why Gaming Matters

A friend of mine doing gender studies just handed me a paper to read. It’s entitled “Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Premarital Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War” (Carolyn Lewis, Journal of Women’s History Volume 17, Number 4, 2005) and discusses the prevailing medical beliefs and practices of sexual medicine during the 1960s and 1970s. Primarily, it details the popular idea that vaginal orgasm was the key to a healthy marriage and a happy wife, and the role doctors were encouraged to play in helping women achieve that – and not seek sexual pleasure elsewhere. Non-vaginal orgasm was seen as the cause and sympton of unhappy marriages and unhappy women.

It’s all very distressing, but the quote that caught my eye was this one:

Linked to this inappropriate sexual outlets was inappropriate gender role behavior… Symptoms included interest in such activities as playing cards, participating in sports, traveling alone and ‘perhaps even aggressive pursuit of a career.’ (emphasis added)

There’s a lot to unpack already. It’s so easy to forget how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve learnt about sexual health, mental health, gender issues and societal perceptions over the last forty or fifty years. We should never, ever forget that – it’s when we forget things like that that we think movements like feminism are meaningless because we can no longer see what they accomplished, which also helps hide what is still going on, because it lacks context. History is not about understanding the past, but understanding the present.

There is of course a temptation to dismiss the statement’s relevance. After all, that was Another Time, and, as L.P. Hartley said, they do things differently there. We must have Comes So Far. Certainly, fifty years is almost two generations. Those were Baby Boomers, Generation Y is obviously not part of such silliness. But let’s remember that those ideas in that paper weren’t just prevailing views of society, they were accepted medical fact (although the two are intertwined). Before we changed the former, we had to change the latter, which took a generation of its own. To change the latter will take another generation. We are, indeed, now reaching a point where female sexuality is being more openly celebrated in all its forms. Some would say it is being over-celebrated, because our culture prefers to keep women as sexual beings as a way of undermining them; our repsonse to the Purity Myth is to turn women from Virgins who must be Protected into Whores that seduce the purity of men.

The evidence of that comes in the part of the sentence I bolded up there. Way back in the dim distant past, the first sign, the absolute first symptom of a woman who had become dysfunctional, had refused to take obedient, dutiful pleasure in her husband’s penetration, the very first sign that she had risen up against this and rejected, from there, all her duties and responsibilities in society, that giant flashing warning sign that tells you everything is wrong?

Is playing cards.

Think about that. Roll that around your mind for a moment. It’s not the most dramatic sign – travelling alone and having a career were far more dramatic – but it was the first sign. The first one to spring to mind.

There’s an old saw that goes if you list what a society considers a crime, you know what that society does every saturday night. We must assume these symptoms were evident. That women had begun, to the horror of proper society, to the dismay of their authority figures and older generations, to the denigration of their mental health and the order of society, in the face of all these things, that women had begun playing cards.

We tend to minimise hobbies, sports, and leisure. They’re not important, like life and liberty. They’re not food on the table or jobs or the right to vote or marry or have children. Yet if we look at history, we know that these things – the way we spend our free time, the way we play and dance and sing – these things are inseparable from who we are, and play an enormous part in our social and societal make-up. And as such, they play a massive part in revolution and political change. If nothing else, they are the canary in the mine. The thing that tells you change is coming.

The American Civil Rights movement was not won by white teenagers listening to black singers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but that was part of that struggle –  and the authority figures knew it, and feared it because of that. It’s very difficult to make a generation hate the people who write their music. It matters when minorities become visible in art and culture. Children sneaking off to go to “black clubs” was part of that rebellion, of accepting that culture.

Games aren’t culture in the same way, but they are part of those struggles.  Jackie Robinson breaking the “colour barrier” in baseball was a massive event in civil rights. Likewise, women playing cards was an equal act of rebellion as burning bras and coming out of the kitchen. It was taking a stake in a male dominated world. Naturally, the most desirable thing, the first thing women wanted wasn’t work, but play. Fun. Enjoyment. Games. And the moment they wanted that, the gatekeepers knew it was a sign thateverything had already gone wrong. Once they start playing cards, they’ve already changed who they are – who they are supposed to be.

As I said, we like to believe that was All Long Ago. But I look around this hobby, and I’m not so sure. Women are allowed to play games, but they cannot do it without being reminded that these games are our games, men’s games. We were here first, we set the agenda, we are the largest market, and our preferences and tastes matter the most. We have let women in the door, but out of generosity, and we demand they sit up the back of the bus and be quiet – and with the ever-present assumption that it was always our bus to begin with, and always will be.

It is of course, much worse in sports, where women are allowed to play as long as they are almost invisible (how many Australians knew the Women’s World Cup Cricket just finished, with the Australian teaming wining for the sixth time in a row?) or expected to be sexually attractive before they are allowed to play (as with the world-wide promotion of Lingerie Football). But for a lot of men, the same macho parochialism is part of gaming – after all, it has the same drive to win at all costs, the same appeal to violence and strength as chief virtues, the same masculine regalia and if you’ve ever seen a gaming advertisement you know they’ll be yelling at you in a loud voice about how you must deliver the smackdown. The girls can join the Street Fight or the Tomb Raiding, but they have to do it in their lingerie.

So have we really come that far? Or, like the doctors of the 1960s and the society around them, do we still see women playing games as the first and most dangerous threat? Of a the most alarming sign of a woman going beyond her designed role in society? Looks like we still do. And if we’re still fighting that battle, we know that there are other battles still to be fought, because how we spend our leisure is part and parcel of the human experience, and making it equal is part and parcel of the struggle for equality. And it is a battle that canot be ignored.

Jackie Robinson wasn’t Rosa Parks or the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr. But his success was part of a cultural  and political war, and part of winning that war. You couldn’t pretend that it was okay for black people to vote but not okay for them to play baseball – and working towards both goals helps the other, and strengthens the other. Likewise, you don’t get to say you’re a feminist, that you think women should be allowed to vote and work and have equal rights, and then go home and tell bitches to get off Call of Duty, because hey, it’s only a game.

No, it’s not. Games matter. The fights we fight in gaming MATTER. They are inseparable from political struggles. If women are playing cards, then everything is under attack, they once believed. Now they believe it of video games and board games and wargames and RPGs. But we want those things under attack, on every front, so we must have women playing games, everywhere, freely and visibly and without restraint or disdain. We cannot settle for anything less.

 

Rape Culture, Gun Culture, Game Culture

A lot of terrible things have happened in the world over the last few weeks. In Steubenville, Ohio, a teenaged girl was raped and subsequently footage was released on YouTube of people joking about the event and mocking the victim.

This video provides an excellent summary of the Ohio case, and includes some of the footage. It includes footage and discussion which may be distressing to some viewers. We are linking to it here because it places the event in the context of the culture in which it was allowed to happen and which excused it afterwards, a culture that we are all a part of and likely contribute to in some way. The men – or boys, perhaps – who perpertrated this crime were not evil, nor mentally ill, yet were perhaps not even aware they had committed a crime, and certainly had no conception of the imorality or inappropriateness of their actions, and they did not become that way in just a moment. 

The boys involved were football players, not gamers, but culture is powerful and important. The media is full of examples of these kind of events happening with regard to sports teams and sport sub-cultures, and in such cultures we also find the hallmarks of rape culture. That is to say, studies continue to show that rape is more likely to occur in environments that produce a “rape culture”, where women are stereotyped, objectified, isolated, denigrated and demeaned, through both overt and subtle rituals and communication.

This is information we should be very concerned about indeed. Gaming is rife with rape culture and has become increasingly so in the last decade, both in the content of the games and in the subculture’s behaviours and standards. Even if no crimes had occurred, that should make us worried at the risk this might present, based on similar cultures with similar dysfunctions where the culture does indeed lead to increases in actual events. The sad truth is, there are such events. Cases of sexual assault and physical sexual harrassment have become more and more common at gaming events, particularly conventions. If there are less reported cases of rape and sexual assault among gamers than among sport teams, we might suggest that is simply because gamers are less social in general, less likely to socialise with the opposite sex, and/or that, for computer gamers, the nature of their hobby – being mostly online – keeps them isolated.

In other words, it could be that the only reason gamer geeks rape less frequently than jocks is because geeks go to fewer parties.

That is a simplification but deliberately so; the summary allows it to be more direct, more shocking, and it needs to be shocking, because it is a crisis situation that must be addressed.

What’s also interesting about this discussion is the timing. As this article also discusses (as it dissects rape culture, brilliantly and at length, please read it) there is a familiarity to this accusation that many will find uncomfortable. For the longest time, gamers have fought against the stigma that games cause violence. Dungeons and Dragons and RPGs were blamed for murder and mind-control in the early 1980s; from the Columbine massacre of 1999 to the horrific events at Sandy Hook just a few weeks ago, media pundits have rushed to blame video games. Indeed, the residents of Sandy Hook recently gathered to perform a mass burning of violent media, including games.

Many gamers have faced great objections to their games because of fears like this. Some games have been banned or made extremely hard to find as a result. Some gamers have devoted enormous amounts of time, energy, passion and intellect to defending against these trends, and keeping our hobby, all of it, out of the pyres, and out of the shadows of fearful stereotyping and stigma. The suggestion that games make you violent – and murderous – is one that has been fought long, and hard and instinctively and repeatedly because it had to be. In voicing anything that resembles such a claim, even from inside the hobby, we should expect a vocal and ardent defence, out of long justified habit.

So is there a difference between saying games make you a murderer and saying games make you a rapist?

Yes.

For one, the claims are fundamentally different. The first draws a line directly from simulated behaviour to actual behaviour without any recognition of steps between, a line that ignores all sense of contributing culture, and a line that science doesn’t support. In the second case we have increasing evidence that rape culture – a measurable, well-defined state – exists in gaming culture, which is bad enough on its own, because it isolates, demeans and degrades women. We also know that in other subcultures, rape culture contributes significantly to the risk of actual physical assault.

The only question that remains is whether the rape culture is being sufficiently contributed to by the content of the games themselves, or simply coming from outside sources. Are men being overwhelmingly caught up in rape culture from mainstream sources, or does the portrayal (or lack thereof) of women in gaming help build and maintain that culture?

That is hard to say for sure. There is increasing evidence, however, that women are underrepresented in game content, and stereotypically represnted when they do appear. That gaming continues to market strongly and slavishly to the mindset of the adolescent, hormonal teenager. We know this because, if from no other source, women are talking about it. Because they can’t find the games they want to play.

The claims are different, and what’s more the reaction is different too. The knee-jerk response to any talk of art being dangerous is to fear the pyre, and again, there are very good reasons for that to be the instinctual response, because we humans are very quick to condemn. For some, the emotional response is equivalent: we can get on social media and label something as evil and that is just the same outpouring of collective hate that gathers around the book-burning pyre.

But there is a fundamental difference between burning books and criticising them. This is a difference not all find important: Penny Arcade’s “Tycho” believes the solution, as he explains here in response to a certain hypersexualised game trailer, should never be less art but always “more art”. But that suggests that all ideas are worthy of all attention, and that creativity produces a wild jungle where ideas of every stripe thrive in their own niche. This is not true of art and certainly not of paid entertainment. The point of the critic – whether that criticism be artistic or political – is to say that some ideas are more interesting than others, and absolutely more important than others. This is not censorship, this is an artistic winnowing that cuts down the trivial and banal, and values the beautiful and truthful; that ignores the cruel and the reactionary and elevates the better angels.

Does that risk exiling some works for being politically incorrect? Maybe so. But it also forces artists to be more interesting. More intelligent. More aware. And less lazy. Less comfortable. Less boring. Less grubbingly dependent on the visceral and the shocking, on the profitable and profligate. Criticism is not the same as censorship; criticism makes art better, in every possible sense. And in a commercial sense, it is vital: it is the consumer telling the producer what they actually want.

That it might also lead to changing the whole culture of the hobby – and thus significantly reduce the number of actual sexual assaults – is a rather nice bonus.

So here we are, and here we remain. We will continue, along with others, to point out games that fail to challenge the dominant, exclusionary, objectifying and demeaning culture, and, more importantly, to celebrate loudly and vocally, those that succeed in challenging them. Because it’s not the same as saying violent games kill people and should be banned. Because the danger is one that history has shown to be actually real – and because our response is one that history has shown to actually work.

 

 

Photos from the Official Launch

Two weeks ago we had our official launch party here in Brisbane! Some of our lovely supporters gathered down at South Bank Parklands to commemorate the launch of our website and campaign. A few photos of the folks and fun follow:
 
 

Marselan has got The MESSAGE

Marselan has got The MESSAGE

  

Robin displays her MESSAGE badge proudly

Robin displays her MESSAGE badge proudly


 
 

Helga and Veronica enjoy the wine and cheese

Helga and Veronica enjoy the wine and cheese

 
 

Women’s Voices: Special Guest Blogger Hannah Elstrom

Part 2 in our Women’s Voices blogs, where we turn things over to female gamers for their point of view. This month’s blog is from Hannah Elstrom:

A while back I was having dinner with my family, and my little brother, age 8, casually expressed his belief that playing video games was an activity for boys.

He might have forgotten all the times he’d seen me engrossed with a new game I had just picked up, or playing multiplayer games with my friends, or taking over the controller for him whenever he had to go up against a difficult boss in his own games, the ones he had inherited from myself. Or, maybe he had forgotten that the person sitting across the table from him, the person he called his sister, was actually a girl. A girl who plays games. A girl who was playing games many years before he was even born. We’re all occasionally struck with partial amnesia, aren’t we? It happens to the best of us.

Now, even though I disagree with my brother, the fact that he said that doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m sure a lot of the girls he goes to school with don’t play games, while most of the boys do. That doesn’t surprise me. I know that reality all too well, because I’ve lived it.

 We’ve all seen and heard of the people with Xbox LIVE usernames like “xxxGamerGurlxxx”, who will not hesitate to mention that, yeah, they’re a girl who plays games (so don’t hit on her, you silly boys!). She might present herself as an anomaly, something out of the ordinary. Gamers like that are often mocked, parodied and singled out by people who feel like your gender shouldn’t matter at all, people who insist that if only you’d shut up about your femaleness and just play the game, people would leave you alone.

The problem with this reasoning is that gender does matter. At least, it’s not irrelevant. “xxxGamerGurlxxx” likely behaves that way because she’s already faced harrassment or different treatment for being a girl who plays games. Maybe she’s been denied a gaming console by her parents because “gaming isn’t for girls”. Maybe she’s been met with shock from her male peers when she mentions that she’s totally excited for the new Call of Duty game to come out. Maybe her female non-gaming friends have accused her of pandering to boys with a false interest in their hobby. Any female gamer will tell you that she’s been met with signals through her life that suggested she was interested in the wrong kind of entertainment. This is a reality that a lot of male gamers don’t see, because they never experience anything of the sort. It’s not just the vile, sexist comments made by the assholes of our community that is problematic – it’s this constant feeling that even though we love to play games, we don’t actually belong here.

It doesn’t even have to come in the form of actual harrassment – just a glance at how female characters are presented in video games tells us everything we need to know about what kind of demographic most developers want to appeal to. It’s certainly not us women. Now, to get something out of the way as soon as possible, I’m not saying that ‘sexy’ character design always equals ‘bad’. Sometimes a sexy character design completely fits the character and the context. For example, Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is one of my favourite BioWare characters of all time, partly because her sexy appearance isn’t meant to titillate a presumably male audience, but is rather deeply rooted in her behaviour and lifestyle. No, the problem with ‘sexy’ character design is that it’s grossly overused, as if the only way a female character can be appealing is if she gives the player an erection. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that women sometimes feel alienated by that.

It’s not difficult to see why some women are turned off by the idea of gaming. It’s not that the actual gameplay is something women just aren’t built to do (which is a ridiculous idea), it’s the harrassment, the entitlement, the ‘boy’s club’ mentality, the lack of outrage at sexism when it happens, the character designers who think armor that exposes your midsection and cleavage is a good idea (hint: it’s a horrible idea, you will get stabbed in the heart and die before the battle has even begun). When my brother says that girls don’t play video games, he’s speaking from observation. He might not be consciously aware that developers intentionally cater to a largely male demographic while ignoring all the rest, that only 10% of developers are female, that 85% of playable characters in games are men, but he certainly feels the effects of it, even at such a young age.

I don’t want him to grow up to become the kind of person who doesn’t think women are worthy of respect no matter how they present themselves online. I don’t want him to throw around rape threats when he’s beaten in an online game, thinking it’s all part of the culture. I want him to understand that there’s a big flaw in the gaming world when attempts to stop harrassment is met with violent opposition. I want him to be able to listen to women when they talk about their experiences as gamers.

In a perfect world, “xxxGamerGurlxxx” might not feel the need to emphasize her gender in gaming spaces. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t feel the effects of the gaming community’s broken perception of women every single day. She wouldn’t be painfully aware that every time she uses her headset she risks being treated like less than a person by people who thinks it should be okay to call women sluts and cunts at least somewhere. She wouldn’t feel like being a woman makes her different in any way when she picks up a controller. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world that needs us to fix it. And we can’t do that by being quiet.

Hannah discovered gaming with Zork: Grand Inquisitor and the first three Tomb Raider games, and hasn’t looked back since. When she’s not working toward a bachelor of musicology, she can be found replaying Silent Hill 1 through 3, while anxiously waiting for the next season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead.

 

White Ribbon Day

As we’ve mentioned a lot, White Ribbon Day was one of the key inspirations for The MESSAGE. The symbol of a white ribbon has historically been a symbol against violence and in support of women’s movements. In 1989, this specific movement began after a self-identified anti-feminist gunman murdered 14 women in a suicidal spree-killing. Which is worth noting as the kind of end-point that anti-feminist movements can lead to, and why they are so troubling.

The White Ribbon movement was a realisation not just that men played a role in creating a culture that supported violence against women, but that women had, for the most part, been forced to take the front-line role in the fight against gender oppression, and that simply wasn’t fair. Gender equality matters to men, and to place the burden of reaching it solely on women is not to be tolerated. We must stand with women, for feminism, as part of feminism, as defenders of it and proponents of it, as loudly and proudly as we possibly can. What does a feminist look like? He looks like your father, your brother, you son.

The White Ribbon campaign’s current slogan is “I’ve got your back”. Approval and acceptance are a big deal for humans of any gender, and going against the mood or what appears to be the mood of the crowd is never an easy thing to do. Even if there is support, making a fuss itself is difficult for anyone. For men, it could easily be interpreted as weakness, as a betrayal of a male code, as a rejection of manhood and what it entails. Men who support feminism are threatened constantly with the idea that they are betrayer’s of men’s rights, that they are turning men into women, and most obnoxiously but still deeply cutting to the male ego, that they will never attract women or have sex. Indeed, large movements devoted to teaching men how to acquire sexual partners contain both overt and covert political messages against feminism.

Part of the modern male mind-set is a sense of aloneness – the man stands alone. He doesn’t talk about his feelings, and he doesn’t ask for help, and his sense of beloning comes from a tribal identity based in ritual – to his nation, his sports team or geek obsession, his mates. To break that ritual is to break with the tribe, and that can be a man’s only sense of social support. That’s why the choice of slogan for the ribbon campaign is so importnat. Why it’s so important for men to pass this sense on to other men. A hundred women can tell a man he’s doing the right thing but it doesn’t feel the same as one man saying that. And it really isn’t easy to say, or even talk about. The picture below had hundreds of us standing together to make the same pledge, and nobody talked about the actual issue. About how to take it home and put it out there. About personal experiences and challenges. Because that’s not what we do.

The badge helps. The t-shirts help. The movement helps us say it when we can’t bring it to voice. Which is of course why we wear t-shirts with gamer quotes on them, too – so when we see someone who gets the joke, we know they’re on our side. And we didn’t have to take the risk by asking them. We can see our tribe, and have support. So if we have to explain it to the norms, we’re not alone. And that matters. It matters so much we hold whole conventions to be around our tribe. The big White Ribbon events are the same idea, except with a more political bent.

The MESSAGE is our way of taking the ideas of the White Ribbon into gaming. And that’s why the regalia is important. We need you to wear the t-shirts, to buy the badges, to use the logo in your avatars and sigs. So the tribe gets stronger. So we can say the unspoken. So we can send the MESSAGE to other men, so we can all be more courageous.

We know you get the idea, or you wouldn’t be reading this. The point is to tell the world you get it. Because only by doing that can we make things better. Tell the world you get the MESSAGE, today. And wear your white ribbon as well, of course.

Men, And What We Can Do About Them

It’s International Men’s Day, so let’s talk about men. Men are important, and it is very important that the first letter of the MESSAGE stands for men. For a lot of reasons.

First of all, I felt it was important to indicate that it was a voice coming from men. As far as I have seen, most of the voices raising the issue of sexism in gaming have so far come almost entirely from women. I felt it was important to be distinct from that, so as to not duplicate anything and to be clear that we were a voice coming from the majority force, so we might be, for those who take such things to heart, harder to dismiss. I also believed it was important to point out that men could recognise this problem, and find it just as offensive as women do and want it stopped. To be very clear that feminism and equality know no gender boundaries. That sexist behaviour by men was not in any way a woman’s issue, but indeed fundamentally a men’s issue. Our behaviour, our problem, our house to put in order not because of the risk to others but ultimately because of the damage it does to ourselves.

Not to be selfish but I really do believe that is true: that sexism towards women, though it appears to privilege men, ends up repressing and damaging us just as much in the long run.  And right now, as men, we can ill-afford such damage.

That’s right, I’m going to say it: men are in trouble. We’re not as nearly as oppressed, silenced or objectified as women, but around the western world men are losing out in a variety of arenas, and that’s something everyone needs to take seriously. If you want evidence of this, you only have to look at the rise in sexism and parochial movements against women of recent times. However faulty or harmful their ideology, it did not evolve entirely in a vacuum. The hate and divisiveness those movements encapsulate are a reaction, if an extreme one, to fear, to suffering, to some kind of systemic attack or deeper sickness.

By now you’re wondering if I’ve gone mad and joined one of said movements. Stay with me, please.

Without wanting to minimise the social, societal and health problems of women (which, outside of the developed world are always more severe than those of men), Western men are increasingly in danger in new and different ways in our modern era. A quick look at statistics shows some horrifying truths, like that the biggest killer of Western men aged under 35 is suicide, and it is in the top three among men of all ages. And a recent study showed that men and women alike don’t recognise the signs of depression in men – it is too often seen as business as usual. Meanwhile it’s hard to get anyone talking about or funding men’s health: outside of recent success with Movember, men are reticent to want to support health funding for themselves. 

One of the main reasons is that men are trained from birth (perhaps even from a genetic level) to protect women, so it’s much easier for men to talk about, raise money for and otherwise support women’s health. Men’s health is also not something that men are comfortable supporting or talking about, and that again comes from a traditional view of men’s roles: our strength is expressed in stoicism, often to the point of total ignorance and avoidance, lest we appear weak.

Thankfully, some people are working hard to help these issues, all around the world. In Australia, we have excellent programs like “She’ll Be Right – WRONG”, which encourages men to go to the doctor, and “Soften the Fuck Up” which encourages men to be less stoic and talk about their problems. Perhaps the greatest Aussie program of all, in terms of its scope, its power and its results is the Australian Men’s Sheds Program. They realised that it didn’t matter if men were softening up if they didn’t have other men to talk to when they did, and that in the modern world, places for men were disappearing. The Sheds are a way men can socialise, support and mentor each other, without having to talk to much because they are working on projects.

Associate Professor Barry Golding, one of the chief patrons of and academic minds behind the Sheds Program summed up the function of the sheds very simply. “Men don’t talk face to face,” he said in a recent interview, “men talk shoulder to shoulder.”

Now you’re sure I’ve gone mad, as it now sounds like I’m advocating the very opposite of our mandate, that gaming be a haven for male bonding. Worse, I’ve fallen foul of gender essentialism, trying to limit how all men must be, which is just as bad as telling women they can’t play games.

The truth is, the whole point of moving beyond the traditional views of gender roles is never to cut off avenues, but to open them up. To allow for the fact that women can and do play computer games, and that some men can and do talk face to face, and that’s great. At the same time, women don’t have to play computer games to prove anything. Likewise, there are likely a lot of men who strongly identify with talking “shoulder to shoulder”, and that’s great too. There are likely many men who feel a great need for a special, reserved male place, to foster that talking and cement the bonds from it, and they should be able to find and enjoy such spaces. They may especially like such spaces to be free of misogynistic attitudes; or to be able to bond with men without needing all the typical companions of beer, violent sports and pornography. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, of course, for men or women.

There may even be many men who feel their personal experience of computer gaming hobby is such a space for them, and want to protect it as such. Which is also fine, and should happen. The problems occur when men conclude that this is the only way it should be, that their personal experience be the entire experience, and it should be reflected across the entire industry and the entire hobby, which is their entire safe, male-only space. And that women should never be allowed to be full and equal participants in the hobby because they will take that away. And when these attitudes cause men to be blind to prejudice and to become so convinced of stereotypes they become second nature, and absolute truth. When men decide women not only must not, but can not play games, because they are weaker and stupider, and because they are not man’s equal, but his decorative accompaniment. That’s the problem.

The point of the MESSAGE is that the gaming hobby has been a guy-only club house for so long, too many of us have decided that that’s the way it should always be, that the above assumptions are not just sworn truth but the only truth – and the best and only way to make sales. Or we’ve just let the assumptions go on so long they’ve seeped into our bones and we don’t even notice we’re making them. The rest of us never saw the GURLS KEEP OUT sign on the door of the hobby, and want to tear down all the things that imply its existence. Because we know girls can game, and should game, because gaming is great, and the more people who do it, the better. For them, for us, for everyone. Together and separately.

The point of the M in the title is because it’s up to us to teach men these things. And strangely enough, we might have the perfect place to do it, right here in front of us. Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder. Not just in sheds, but around the game table, or console to console, avatar to avatar. Gaming may have gone a long way to turning men into troglodytes, but it has at its heart everything it needs to bring us back, too. It is actually the time and place where a “Dude, that’s not cool” can maybe work the best.

What’s more, we may even be able to deal with some of the underlying causes of these attitudes I mentioned above. With the real, actual problems facing men. Shoulder to shoulder, die roll to die roll, mouse to mouse, we have a chance to soften the fuck up and talk about our pain, safe in the knowledge that we don’t have to look each other in the eye, that a goblin ambush will interrupt uncomfortable silences, and that is just no possible way we will be able to hug while we’re raiding.