When games are written by straight men for straight men: the problem with Emily is Away [CW][TW][spoilers]

[Note before I start, that I get pretty shouty about gaslighting, manipulation, and rape in this post. So please proceed with caution and care.]

One of the (many) problems of the male as default protagonist in any form of entertainment is that it’s left me cold for vast swathes of media, even media that is critically acclaimed. We’re told that male protagonists are more “relate-able”, and that men can’t be expected to identify with female protagonists. And leaving aside the blatant unfairness of that statement, it is true that women will identify with male protagonists – to a certain point. However, after a while, it just gets hard to care about media obviously aimed at men. For most of my life, I consumed stories mostly about men, but past a certain point you start to ask – why am I never reflected? Why should I care about this story about Yet Another Chapter In the Continuing Adventures of Manly Mans Doing Manly Things when the purveyors couldn’t give two shits what I think?

So. Hold that thought a moment.

I’ve been meaning to write about Emily is Away for a while now. I’d heard great things about it from various sources about the game and how the unique interface delivers compelling gameplay through moments like watching your typing errors be corrected or watching yourself delete or revise your comments. My vague impression of Emily is Away was that it was supposed to be a charming love story about two people whose relationship is witnessed through AIM, and that it was supposed to be well executed.

That was something that I was really interested in! I’ve written previously about how I wish that AAA gaming would make more games that aren’t just violence simulators with awesome graphics. And given that I met my husband online in a newsgroup, then migrated to having conversations via ICQ and IRC… the whole “relationship by AIM” thing was nostalgia that I was interested in revisiting. I felt like I was in the audience that this story was targeting – people who chatted on archaic chat platforms of the 90’s who have had an internet romance.

Unfortunately, when I actually played Emily is Away, I had the rug pulled out from under me, because once again I discovered that I’d been suckered into playing a game that was emphatically Not Written For Me. That frustration only got worse the more times I played it, trying to explore the different branches, because the more I played, the more it hit home that this was a game written by a man for an audience of straight men. Moreover, this post took days to write because I discovered that I have a lot to say about that. So.

Let’s dig into what I mean when I say that this game was written by a man for an audience of straight men. Starting with:

Problem #1: The men in this game are people, the women are props

At no point in this game do we ever get a feel for what Emily as a person is like. She never says anything personal about herself that isn’t about her connection to another dude. She’s going to Travis’ party. She’s getting messages from Brad. She’s dating Brad! But she sure asks lots of questions about YOU – the dude protagonist. (And yes you can put in a female name at character creation. It won’t change the fact that you’re still a dude, but we’ll return to that.)

Emily asks what you chose as your major, but you never ask about hers – nor does she ever talk about what she ends up studying. In the game, you talk about classes, about group projects, about what school is like for you – but YOU NEVER ASK EMILY and SHE NEVER TALKS ABOUT IT. Even when she opens up and says personal things, the only things she talks about relate to her connection with YOU, the protagonist, or her off-again-on-again boyfriend, Brad. Emily isn’t a person. She doesn’t feel “real”. She’s a shallow cardboard cutout. An obvious stand-in for the ultimate Nice Guy fantasy – what if my female friend actually did have feelings for me all along?

Worse, the only other female character in the game, Emma. And she gets ONE out of THREE possible character traits: kind, funny, or hot. Emily at least gets to have a second dimension through some trivial personal details, like the fact that she likes Coldplay and Snow Patrol – which is more than Emma gets. Emma exists in one dimension, because that’s the only dimension she’s ever given. NEITHER of them gets to be a real, three-dimensional person. Even more frustrating, it is VERY HARD not to have a romantic relationship with her.

Emma is depersonalized to the extent that at the end of the game, it’s revealed that you don’t spend time with Emma anymore; if Emma was someone you were pursuing romantically and you chose to go down the path that leads to a romantic encounter with Emily (which we’ll get back to in a sec), Emma rightly kicks you to the curb for ditching your plans with her to make a booty call with your friend from high school. (Seriously, major dick move.) But even if you don’t! Even if you don’t ditch Emma, or you and Emma are nothing more than friends, the ending is always the same. At the end, Emma starts dating someone else and doesn’t have time for you anymore.

Which, really, is the ultimate Nice Guy fear. That a woman they like will find someone else, someone who contributes more than just not being a shitty human being who sees her only as a sexual goal to be attained, and stop spending time with them.

In Chapter 5, when Emily asks how Emma is doing, and you reveal that you don’t see her anymore, you literally don’t have an option that indicates that you’re sad about not seeing her anymore. Even if you and Emma are really good friends who talk all the time earlier in the story, the only possible responses show a breathtaking lack of regard for Emma as a human being:
Emily7-couldcareless

And that? Makes me pretty furious. Because I have BEEN the woman surrounded by men who are unable to see me as a person. I’ve been the woman that men call an ignorant judgemental cunt, or a fat jealous lesbian, or who say that I’m raising my daughter to be a dysfunctional lesbian – just because I have opinions they don’t agree with about games. I’ve been the female friend who realizes that her male friend, the friend that she felt close to, never actually cared about her – he just liked having someone around who admired his work and stroked his ego. And I’ve been the woman who had use her relationship status (“taken”) to fend off men she’d rather not speak to. Because I’m not enough of a person to have my wishes respected, but my husband is.

I have a lifetime of experience of being the fake woman, the cardboard cutout, the prop in a man’s self-centered reordering of the universe to be all about him. And maybe it’s completely unfair, but my knee-jerk reaction is that of course only a man could look at how Emily and Emma are presented and see the situation as “charming” or “romantic”, because so many men aren’t used to thinking of women as real people anyhow.

Problem #2: the game is NOT gender neutral

Technically, you can put in any name you want. There’s never any pronouns used, so the protagonist can be any gender the player wants… TECHNICALLY. In practice, however, the game and all the dialogue read as YOU ARE A HETERO DUDE.

doge

I like playing immersively, so I used my name. I also decided that for my first playthrough, I wanted to just be Emily’s friend. And, you know, mostly that worked until about halfway through Chapter 3. Emily is sad about a bad breakup, which has cost her all of her friends – who sided with her ex, and reveals that she used to have feelings for the protagonist.

Which. You know. Nice Guy fantasy. But also, it is the most boringly cliched hetero romance moment ever, that I simply could not take seriously the idea that the protagonist was anything other than a straight dude. Seriously:

Emily3-stars

And look. I get it. The stars are romantic. I, too, have gone for a walk with my beloved and marveled at the stars. They’re large and unfathomable and we are but tiny ephemeral things whose connections will never matter on a cosmic scale. I get it.

But. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a literal retelling of a thing that happens in every other movie about a hetero romance movie ever[1]. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Scott Pilgrim, The Fault in Our Stars, Gregory’s Girl, A Beautiful Mind, My Girl… the list goes on and on.

Anyway, the moment where things go from mildly frustrating to totally fucking gross what the actual fuck just happened here occurs in Chapter 4, in response to events from Chapter 3. Which brings you to:

Problem #3: This game makes you a rapist, then tells you asserting healthy boundaries is JUST AS BAD AS THAT

See, during that conversation in Chapter 3, after Emily reveals that she had feelings for you, she asks if she can come visit you THIS WEEKEND OR NOT AT ALL, and you have several shitty options: 1) say no, you don’t think it would be a good idea, because Emily just told you about her past feelings and she’s coming off a bad breakup, so she can’t visit you AT ALL NEVER EVER. 2) Say “yes you can come visit” with no qualifications 3) Say yes you can come visit, but only as friends.

Because I was trying to play someone who didn’t have a relationship with Emily, I made the most neutral responses that I could when she was revealing her feelings to me, “I didn’t know you felt that way” and “you should have said something”. But when she asked if she could come visit, I said sure! Because she needed support, and in at the beginning it’s established that the two of you are best friends, even if the protagonist is too chickenshit to say it outright. (“You’re my best friend” is one of the things he deletes and corrects.) And sure it meant canceling on plans to do stuff with Emma, but I reasoned we’re all adults and Emma should understand “best friend is in trouble, needs support” – because it’s the compassionate thing to do.

After agreeing to the visit, I even said (the first time around) ‘sure, bring your booze’ when she asks about alcohol, reasoning we’d hang around campus and do shit and just get drunk enough to have fun and feel better about a shitty situation. There have been lots of times where I’ve hung out with friends in shitty situations and got drunk with them to help them feel better.

Which, you know, yay! Until Chapter 4, which opens a year after that visit, with Emily apologizing for not messaging in a while. She says she’s felt weird about things between you, and when pressed responds with the following:
Emily4-didyou

I felt sick. Actually sick. “Of course I didn’t plan that” was the least skeevy response it would let me make, and it was still defensive and not okay. But then it went even further. Emily tells you about how in retrospect, it all seemed so planned. That you introduced her to all your friends, then took her back to your dorm room and got her drunk and you “hooked up”. And she’s felt weird and not okay about it ever since. And no matter what response you make, the protagonist types “you wanted to hook up”, then erases it and replaces it with “I don’t know”.

And THAT? That was like a bucket of cold water. Because “you wanted it” is what rapists tell their victims.

Literally nothing about how Emily describes the situation reads as consensual to me. The defensive responses, the fact that you can even claim to ‘not have noticed’ that things were weird, the fact that your initial impulse is to tell her that she wanted it. This doesn’t read like a misunderstanding between star-crossed lovers. This reads like a woman who is hurt and traumatized by something that she knows wasn’t okay, something that violated her trust in someone that she loved, and she’s trying to confront that without being ready to call what happened to her “rape”. Not yet.

While this whole thing played out, I couldn’t help but remember stories that I’ve heard from other women about having their trust violated by a friend who told them that they wanted it. I’ve heard and read so many stories, so many stories where a woman talks about being raped by a man that she loved and trusted, who told her that she wanted it, and who refused to accept that what he did was not okay when confronted later. And they read uncomfortably close to how this scene plays out. This scene that is supposed to be “romantic”. This scene where you find out that you are a rapist, and it happened offscreen, and you couldn’t do anything about it.

So I went back and replayed it. Made the same choices up to that point, but then told Emily not to bring booze. But that still doesn’t make much difference. You still hook up, things are still weird and wrong, and in dubious consent territory. And this time when Emily calls you on it:

Emily5-vulnerable

YOU SEEMED FINE?

BEFORE SHE VISITED SHE WAS CRYING TO YOU, LITERALLY CRYING ABOUT HER BREAKUP AND HOW SHE HATED EVERYTHING AND HER SCHOOL AND ALL HER FRIENDS HAD DUMPED HER. SO. NO. THAT IS WRONG. “I don’t know” is such a fucking disingenuous response, because the entire situation that led to this visit? The fact that you and Emily talk all the time, and have this long past together? You know. You fucking well KNOW she’s not okay. How could you not?

The only saving grace is that at least this time around it’s not rape, because Emily was sober and capable of consent. But this is some skeevy emotional manipulation bullshit, and then the fact that the protagonist claims ignorance of her emotional state after the fact? No. NO.

I’ve had my body used for the gratification of a man in a situation that I didn’t consent to. I shut down. I froze, I didn’t move or speak. But when I confronted my attacker later, he at least had the grace to be ashamed and own that what he did wasn’t okay and apologize. Because he knew. HE KNEW and he did it anyway, because in that moment what he wanted was more important than my safety.

And I’ve had men gaslight me. Men who I thought were friends and confidants, who turned my world upside down, tried to convince me that I was a monster because I insisted on trying to get them to see themselves in a critical light because I cared about them and wanted them to be better. Men who decided it was better to betray my trust and destroy my confidence in how I saw myself because it wasn’t compatible with them seeing themselves as the HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY.

So yeah. No.

[ahem] So that’s shitty option number 2. What about shitty options #1 (no you can’t visit ever) and #3 (yes you can visit, but only as a friend). Well, if you opt for #1, at the beginning of Chapter 4 Emily mentions that she had a breakdown after you wouldn’t let her visit and blames you for abandoning her in her time of need. Which. I mean. Fine. You know, having Emily be so emotionally fragile that she falls to pieces and goes crazy the instant a man isn’t there to validate her self-worth is shitty, but at least “you said you’d support me and didn’t” is a legitimate grievance, even if the situation that is presented is so stereotypical and gendered that I can’t even.

And if you opt for #3, Chapter 4 opens with Emily berating you about how things will never be okay because you “missed your chance” and “that was the moment” you could have gotten together and YOU BLEW IT. And the anger and recrimination is just as strong in that situation, the situation in which you asserted a healthy boundary and didn’t take advantage of a woman you cared about who was deeply vulnerable, as it is in situation #2 – in which you can become an actual rapist[2].

Because the problem, THE REAL PROBLEM, is that Emily has feelings toward the protagonist that aren’t positive. It doesn’t matter if they arise from a legitimate grievance, or you “not making your move”, or you taking advantage of her and possibly raping her. The outcome is always the same, because the protagonist’s actions don’t matter. What matters is that Emily is rejecting you, and that is the REAL tragedy.

Problem #4: No matter what choices you make, in the end you are always The Sad Nice Guy Abandoned By That Girl Who Should Have Chosen Him Instead

Chapter 5 opens by being the only chapter in which you have to message Emily first to talk to her. And during that conversation, Emily is obviously doing a slow fade. She’s not pulling her weight in the conversation, making terse responses, and not trying to keep it going.

Though of course the one exception to this is when she asks, unprompted, about Emma and the protagonist has the aforementioned hissy fit about how she had to get a new boyfriend and doesn’t spend time with him anymore. And it’s ironic that this, THIS, is perhaps the only thing that the author gets right. That dismissal of Emma as a person who has worth independent of her willingness to satisfy your boner is the moment when Emily shuts down and stops trying. You pepper her with questions about stupid shit. Concerts, summer plans, whatnot, and she gives you the soft rejection. Because that’s what women learn to do with men they have reason to be afraid of, to let them down easy so they don’t get stabbed.

Emily8-goodbye

But even then, he comes at it all wrong – because the tragedy isn’t what a what a sad, miserable human being you are. The tragedy isn’t that you’re an entitled dickmonster incapable of seeing women as real human beings with hopes and dreams and aspirations. The tragedy is supposed to be that you are SAD and CONFUSED and ALONE, and you don’t understand how you could be graduating college WITHOUT A WOMAN. Because our culture PROMISED YOU A WOMAN.

It’s infuriating to play through a game that misses the point so completely that it ends up in an entirely different universe of NOT THE GODDAMN POINT. And it’s disappointing, because honestly – I’ve had friendships fizzle out where one person stopped caring, friendships that have played out over messaging. And it sucks. It hurts, and it’s painful, and it leaves you bewildered and wondering what you did wrong. So that game? That game I would have played and enjoyed. But not this. Never this.

Emily is Away isn’t “touching” or “romantic”. It’s a disturbing highlight of how entitled men feel to women’s time and attention, and how willing men are to dehumanize someone in the pursuit of achieving their own romantic desires.

[1] And before you ask what makes that seem so hetero, looking at the stars is just romantic, right? That might be the case if Hollywood didn’t make the few gay love stories they produce tragic like EVERY GODDAMN TIME. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Brokeback Mountain, Rent, Love is Strange, Carol, Cracks, Aimée & Jaguar, Blue is the Warmest Colour (not death)… you get the idea

It’s pretty fucking impossible to think of a movie about a gay romance that ends happily. …like, to be honest, I’m a movie buff and I literally can’t remember one.

[2] And yeah, I know about Kyle Seeley’s response to Emily Short’s review, in which she raises the issue of ‘um, you are describing rape’. And in that response, he starts by telling Emily ‘she’s wrong’, ‘it’s not rape’. And then he handwaves and says well you know, he’s not saying Emily’s feelings are wrong or whatever. And then he fails to stick the landing with an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ nonpology. (“I’m sorry to anyone who interprets the story that way”). So no, if anything he just dug the hole deeper.

Life is Strange Chapters 4 & 5: The Villain is Patriarchy [TW]

Okay, folks. So before I start, this post is CHOCK FULL of spoilers for Life is Strange. Episode 5, the final episode, has been out since last October, so I figured that now would be a good time to finish playing and write about the experience, but if you haven’t finished Life is Strange yet, or if you haven’t played it but intend to, I’m going to emphatically recommend not reading this until after you’ve played it. Normally I’m pretty spoiler-agnostic, but the twist at the end of Chapter 4 is one of the most genuinely surprising and unsettling twists I’ve encountered in a game and I would really hate to ruin that for anyone invested in playing.

Also, it’s important to note that this post comes with a trigger warning for descriptions of unsettling depictions of gendered violence, harassment, and graphic rape metaphors.

So, now that that’s been said…

Here there are only spoilers for Chapters 1-3:

I’ve written about Life is Strange previously; last year I binged Chapters 1-3 in rapid succession and wrote about the experience here. What drew me into the series was the complex portrayal of a wide variety of female characters – all of whom have complex motivations and characterizations, and the explicit centering of women’s stories.

What I came to appreciate after playing the first three chapters, however, was how the writers very purposefully led the audience through a narrative that builds a very clear picture of the lived emotional reality of being a woman who has to live in a patriarchal society and the awful choices that can happen as a result. Further, while a lot of media can include depictions of online harassment or sexual violence in the name of being “topical” or “edgy”, the developers at DONTNOD impressively manage to make both harassment and sexual violence central plot points in such a way that doesn’t cheapen the narrative or demean the characters who suffer from this violence. The gendered nature of both the harassment and the sexual violence is made very clear, and while the player is given a choice in how to respond when stories of violence are recounted, choosing to respond in ways that blame the victim results in having those responses thrown back at you in ways that highlight the injustice and horror of blaming women for their own victimization.

Importantly, as the player begins to uncover more detail about the strange and terrible things happening at Blackwell, a situation is set up where all of the possible villains are men with status and power. At the end of Chapter 3, Max finds herself in an office with all of them as she is being pressured to point fingers and assign blame.

And each of the men is, in his own way, a different toxic manifestation of internalized male privilege:

  • David Madsen, the chief of Blackwell security, is the male representative of authority who takes it upon himself to govern the women around him in the name of law and order.
  • Nathan Prescott is the platonic ideal of violent toxic masculinity, who threatens violence freely against women who get in his way and who serially drugs and sexually victimizes women without ever showing remorse for his actions.
  • Principal Wells is the institutional authority who recognizes Nathan for the violent sociopath he is, and yet continues to cover up his actions to protect both the institution he serves and to materially benefit himself and his personal finances, allowing Nathan free reign to continue victimizing women as he sees fit.
  • And Mark Jefferson, the enlightened mentor figure who has so many positive things to say about encouraging women to step forward and take risks, is the disappointing ally – the man who you thought Got It until he revealed the extent of his internalized misogyny by blaming Kate Marsh for what happened to her and escalating an already untenable situation.

All of this is left implicit, however, in the first three chapters. In Chapter 4, however…

Commence spoilers for Chapters 4 and 5!

Chapter 4 is when the gloves come off, when the developers make it explicitly clear that HEY – IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED, THE VILLAIN IS PATRIARCHY.

First, there is Nathan. If you choose to blame Nathan for what happened to Kate Marsh, he continues to escalate his sexist abuse – which began as just calling Max things like “dyke” and “bitch”, but graduates to “feminazi” in Chapter 4 – a slur that you hear a few times from this point on. Perhaps the most chilling of which is when you receive an “anonymous” text from what you already know to be Nathan’s phone saying only “feminazis will be exterminated”.

Chapter 4 is also when Nathan is revealed for the entitled, misogynistic monster that he is – an unapologetic sexual predator who is a danger to any woman around him. Through Max and Chloe’s investigation, it becomes clear that Nathan is, if not a serial rapist, then definitely someone who has serially sexually assaulted women – there is the video of him with a drugged Kate Marsh, in which he encourages people to take advantage of someone too drugged to consent to sexual activity. There is also Chloe’s story of Nathan’s attempt to drug her with similar intent. Both of these events actually occur after Nathan killed and secretly buried Rachel Amber, resulting in her disappearance two months before the events of the game take place.

[Sidebar: Relative to Nathan, for all the fact that he is an unstable, paranoid, borderline psychotic sexual predator, I actually really appreciate what happens if you attempt to warn Victoria to stay away from Nathan during the Vortex Club party in Chapter 4. Victoria reacts with disbelief and anger, accusing Max of saying that Nathan is dangerous out of jealousy or other personal motivations. She defends Nathan as being her best friend, and that she couldn’t possibly believe that he could be both her best friend and a predator to be avoided.

vicky

Which. Oof. This was such a powerful and true-to-life portrayal of conversations that actually happen – the danger that keeps women from attempting to warn other women about “missing stairs“, because there is always the risk that your warnings will not only not be received, but that you will be punished socially for it.]

But Nathan, as it turns out isn’t the real villain after all. The villain behind Rachel Amber’s disappearance, the drugging of Kate Marsh, and the whole sordid mess going on at Blackwell turns out not to be David Madsen – who has been established up to this point as a creepy, borderline domestic-abusing, teenage-fetishizing weirdo, or Principal Wells – who has explicitly used his institutional authority to protect a sexual predator. In what is one of the most genuinely shocking and upsetting twists I have ever encountered in a video game, it turns out to be Mr. Jefferson – the trusted authority and mentor figure who up until the reveal at the end of Chapter 4 has been an entirely sympathetic character.

[TW: If you want to skip discussion of rape metaphor, skip to where I tag the end of the trigger warning]

The reveal of Mr. Jefferson at the end of Chapter 4 is harrowing, but the opening of Chapter 5 takes that horror to an entirely new level when Max wakes up in a secret bunker that she discovers with Chloe in Chapter 4, but had assumed to be Nathan’s, as it is on old property belonging to Nathan’s family. Jefferson has drugged Max, just as he did with Kate, so that he can photograph her while unconscious – without that inconvenient free will and personhood that would only screw up his photographs.

Jefferson_uses_Max_for_his_photography

The dialogue that he gives while photographing Max, as he enthuses about how pure, beautiful, and “innocent” she is in her unconscious/semiconscious state, is chilling, as is the rage that he shows when Max – who is groggy as she wakes up from the drugs – attempts to move and “ruins” his shots. It is at this point that Mark Jefferson becomes the literal embodiment of patriarchy.

The way that he crouches over Max as he photographs her, at times even straddling her for the sake of a shot… Let’s just say that obvious rape metaphor is obvious. The camera angles that the developer chooses, the ways in which Jefferson defines the space around Max and physically moves her in the space, the things that he says as he is waxing rhapsodic about her special qualities — it a horrifying violation.

The level of remove that the writers provide by writing the scene as “obvious rape metaphor is obvious”, however, is deftly done in that it evokes feelings of terror and threat without being a portrayal that would be triggering for most survivors with trauma surrounding real-life assault. But critically, it also provides an additional layer of critical commentary about the attitudes about women that make Jefferson’s monstrous behavior possible.

[/Trigger warning]

Just to leave some space after the next session, have a picture of a baby rabbit in a coffee mug.

Mark Jefferson LITERALLY objectifies women for the purposes of subjecting them to his male gaze. By drugging women he finds sexually appealing, he turns them into objects incapable of asserting their agency or desires, so that he can photograph them the way that HE WANTS TO SEE THEM.

The level of meta-narrative happening is deafening, even as it manages to do what I have literally never seen any other video game do – tell a story about sexual violence against women in ways that centers the survivor of that violence, without being done in such a way that it comes across as being done for easy “shock” value or to make the story “edgy”.

That, in and of itself, is an impressive achievement in game writing. As is the scene where David rescues Max from Jefferson, or rather, assists Max in rescuing herself, and the conversation that follows – in which it becomes clear that David has been trying to be an ally all along, although he has been going about it in the dumbest, most wrong-headed fashion possible. And he acknowledges his failings without flinching from the fact that he failed, and that he acted in ways that were inappropriate, and would need to try make amends for his behavior.

But the nail in the coffin, the final layer of “HEY, BTW, THE VILLAIN IS TOTES PATRIARCHY” is the nightmare level where all of Max’s cumulative changes warp reality and trap her in a combination of alternate dimensions that she has to find her way out of. As reality continues falling apart around her, Max finds herself trapped in a maze in which all of the major male characters become villains – monsters that she has to hide from in order to survive. That in itself is unnerving, but the things that the men shout out as they patrol, looking for Max, hammers home the gendered nature of the threat they represent.

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Nathan hurls gendered insults like “feminazi” and promises violence when he finds Max. Principal Wells makes threats about how he will use his power to punish Max, blaming her for everything that has happened. David similarly hurls insults and promises retribution. And Jefferson maintains the level of imminent threat by trying to convince her of the merits of his artistic vision, even as he says some truly vile things like, “Max, Rachel not only gave great headshots, she gave great head”. Just as frightening, however, is the fact that men who are actual allies also stalk the maze. Frank – who can become either an ally or an enemy in Chapter 4 (I made him an ally), is there – blaming Max for what happened to Rachel and promising retribution. Samuel, who is only ever gentle and kind, is there too. And Warren, who is only ever sweet and earnest and eager to help Max stand up to Nathan, alternately pleads for and demands Max’s attention.

In the end, Max escapes and what leads her back to reality and sanity are her memories of Chloe and the moments of real happiness and female companionship that they’ve shared in the last week – which is what makes the final choice at the end so agonizing. But for all that I sobbed my way through the ending after choosing to sacrifice Chloe, that wasn’t the part that has been sticking with me since finishing the game.

I keep finding myself on the power and resonance of the nightmare maze, because I have never played a game that so accurately reflected the experiences that I have had since starting my blog that have led to me being afraid of men as a class of human being. Despite the fact that some of my closest, deepest, most intimate ties are with men, spaces that are heavily marked as male are spaces that I am not able to feel safe in. And this game, THIS FUCKING GAME, made by (from what I have been able to gather) a team of mostly-white-dudes, is the first time in my whole goddamn life that I have seen a game FUCKING NAIL my emotional truth.

Which, you know, given that I’ve been playing video games since I was about 6, it’s about fucking time.

Rape is not edgy, creative, or original [TW][CW]

[Trigger/Content Warning for frank discussions of awful portrayals of rape]

This isn’t the post that I was going to write today.

Originally, I had been planning on writing about my experience facilitating a game (that I wrote) called Autonomy, which centers around forcing men to have an embodied experience of sexism and gender-based injustice. It was a powerful, cathartic, and borderline traumatic (in a good way!) experience that I do very much want to share.

But all of that was before a friend linked to this piece by Emma Boyle on Gadgette, in which she writes about the character Quiet in the new Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain, and the many and sundry ways that Quiet is very much not an empowered feminist-friendly character:

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And now there are so many fucked up things about her design that I want to yell at the internet about! So very, very many fucked up things! Like:

  • Quiet is arguably the least clothed female character in the MGS series (it’s a little hard to tell in this screenshot, but those are ripped nylons that Quiet is wearing, not pants), which is – frankly – sort of impressive, given how very not clothed many female characters in the MGS series are.
  • Quiet doesn’t dress that way because she chooses to; she dresses that way because she has to. Her backstory is that she’s photosynthetic, so wearing clothes would LITERALLY SUFFOCATE HER. You know, BECAUSE SCIENCE.
  • Speaking of BECAUSE SCIENCE, there is another character in the MGS series – The End – who is also photosynthetic, who does actually get to wear clothes. You know, on account of him not being a woman. (Funny, that.)
  • Quiet also DOESN’T TALK. At all. Because really, isn’t it just so hard to objectify a woman when she goes and opens her mouth and reminds you that she’s a human being with thoughts, feelings, and an inner life of her own? Yeah. Better to have her just not talk at all.
  • And let’s not forget the shit cherry on the shit sundae: the series creator, Hideo Kojima, tried to shame people who expressed concern about the problematic design of the character by saying that once the full story was released, critics would “feel ashamed of their words and deeds”. Because it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that of course people who are expressing criticism of a fictional character who embodies many problematic tropes are the bad guys, not the guy who actually created the character in the first place.

[headdesk]

All of those things are fucked up, and any of them are things that I could easily get a full-length post out of. However, the thing that I am angriest about is the disturbingly scripted near-rape sequence that Quiet is only able to save herself from because sexualization:

At a later point in the game there’s a distressing scene where Quiet is attacked. Quiet is taken captive and dressed in prisoner clothing, which, in covering her skin, causes her to slowly suffocate. In this scene, a guard grabs Quiet by the throat and forces her head into a tank of water, holding her head under the surface until she stops resisting him. The camera zooms in on her lifeless face, holding there whilst the player can hear the sound of a zip being undone and Quiet’s clothing being removed. It’s with this removal of her clothing that Quiet’s skin is once again exposed and, able to breathe, she overpowers her attackers and escapes a grotesque rape. There’s a video, but we’re not going to link to it because it’s triggering and horrible. — Emma Boyle, Gadgette – A games company just came up with the worst excuse ever for their half-dressed female character

It’s bad enough that the BECAUSE SCIENCE that is used to justify Quiet being so undressed in the first place actually extends to the point that wearing clothes will actually kill her. Because as much as I hate choice feminism (“what I choose is automatically feminist because I identify as a feminist and I choose it”), that would still actually be better than a female character created by men whose only two choices are 1) wear revealing clothing or 2) die. But the near-rape on top of all that is, honestly, repellant. Repugnant. Horrifying.

And sadly, I’m pretty positive that Hideo Kojima thought that he was being “edgy” and “creative”. “Hey look! I set up a character who needs to expose skin to live, so that later when the villains think she is powerless and they want to victimize her they’re actually giving her what she needs to get the power to save herself! What a reversal! Hot damn, I am a genius!”

NO. NO YOU AREN’T. NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT.

And here’s why:

RAPE IS NOT EDGY

“Edgy” is the word that a lot of (male) creators like to use when they describe work that contains rape or attempted rape as a plot point. But here’s the problem with that.

Work that is legitimately edgy is either at the forefront of a trend or the start of an entirely new trend. It is experimental or avant-garde, and by fucking definition definitely not mainstream.

Now I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but rape is kind of an epidemic in our society, and it’s been that way for, I dunno, just about all of fucking human history. Still, one might be able to make a claim that art featuring rape was “edgy” if our media and culture actually recognized the horror of the prevalence of rape in our society and it was taboo to portray rape and sexual violence in art. But rape in media, especially geek media, is depressingly common.

And yet, there are all these creators, these male creators who think that using rape to make their work DARK and GRITTY somehow makes their work “edgy” – because somehow they all lose sight of the fact that GRIMDARK is the new mainstream. You see it from creators like Hideki Kamiya’s portrayal of Bayonetta as a sexually “empowered” and “liberated” woman who still suffers rape as a penalty for mechanical failure. Or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, which is often touted as this revolutionary work of “realistic”, “edgy” “dark fantasy” – and yet everything about the books only reflects the power dynamics of patriarchy as it exists in the real world. Even Joss Whedon, whose work I am actually a fan of despite his tendency to fall into the same problematic traps regarding gender and race repeatedly, tried with Dollhouse to write a series that would be challenging and thought-provoking and wound up just being uncomfortably rapey.

In order to be truly, legitimately edgy, Phantom Pain would have to actively subvert and reverse common gender tropes and stereotypes. Instead, everything about the game, writing, and character design only serves to reinforce the status quo of patriarchy – which makes it about as far from edgy as it is possible to get.

RAPE IS NOT CREATIVE OR ORIGINAL

The reliance of geek writers on rape isn’t creative. Creativity is experimenting with new thoughts, ideas, and processes to create something original. It’s taking something familiar and using it in a way that it wasn’t intended for, or using it in a way that it’s never been used before. It’s throwing out ideas about how a problem “should” be solved and trying approaches that “shouldn’t” work just to see what happens. Creativity is not reaching for the same tool every time you have a problem that needs solving, even if that tool is not the ideal tool for the problem at hand. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. And the problem is that for a depressingly large number of (usually but not exclusively) male writers, their go-to hammer is rape.

But when the default answer to “I need to show this person is evil, how do I do that” is “rape”, that’s not creative.

When the default answer is “I need to have this female character had to have overcome adversity in the past, what is it that she has overcome” is “rape”, that’s not creative.

When the default answer to “I need this female character to suffer a setback, what should happen to cause that setback” is “rape”, that is not creative.

I could write thousands, if not tens of thousands of words about how unbelievably fucking common rape is in geek media. But I’ve already done that, or tried to, and I was only able to just barely scratch the surface. It would be entirely possible to devote this blog to only writing about rape in gaming, and I would still never run out of material because seriously gaming is legit kind of obsessed with rape and it’s depressing.

TL;DR: JUST DON’T FUCKING WRITE ABOUT RAPE

It’s to the point where my advice to creators is now – does your idea include rape? Great. Scrap it and start over. Because I have literally never seen an instance of rape in any piece of media that I have consumed that I would say was handled well.

Every time I have seen rape in a piece of media, it has been about deprotagonizing women, either by punishing them for being strong or explaining their strength by victimizing in their backstory. It is about reducing women to plot objects that can be violated for the sake of story whenever it is convenient.

And it’s always about the reactions OF THE MEN to the rape, and never about the victim’s experience and journey. What’s important when someone (almost always a woman) is raped in a piece of fiction is how that rape gives strength of conviction and tragic purpose to the male protagonist in achieving their Plot Objective. You never get to experience stories about the experiences of the victim, of trying to navigate a system that blames and re-victimizes women for their own rapes, or of trying to balance recovery with the expectations of how “good” victims should behave – expectations which are often at odds with what will actually help in recovering.

Even when you have a character get raped and then get revenge on their rapist, that is such a simplistic, reductive take on rape that just isn’t helpful. The reality of rape is that in many cases, women have social, practical, or emotional ties to their attackers and violently attacking or killing their rapist would only be further traumatizing. That sort of story line also comes with the implication that women who don’t want to lash out violently at their attacker feel that way because they are weak. And if they were truly strong and “empowered”, they would hurt their attacker just as bad as they themselves were hurt, if not worse.

So despite the fact that I’m really not a fan of blanket “just don’t write about [x] in [y]” type rules, I’m calling it. We’re done. We all had our chance and we proved we couldn’t handle the responsibility. So from now on, JUST DON’T FUCKING WRITE ABOUT RAPE.

On Bayonetta 2 and Female Sexuality in Video Games [TW]

[TW: The first part of this post contains some content looking at rape-as-punishment-of-in-game-failure, as well as a link to a rapey cut scene.]

Recently, I had a decent-sized traffic spike on my old post about Bayonetta and the male gaze… from three years ago. (Usually that post averages 200-300 direct links per month; in October of this year it got 3700+.) Apparently, a bunch of guys on Reddit got really sore that I said nasty things about Bayonetta and hate-read the article so they could talk about how terrible I was.

…weird. And they say the feminists are just “looking for things to be offended by”.

My reaction initially was along the lines of ‘oh well – I feel pretty much everything I said about Bayonetta back then certainly applies to the new game’, so I’d planned on leaving well enough alone. But a few things caught my attention recently that made me think it would be worth revisiting. So first, some thoughts, and then a redraw.

Part the first: you can oppose #GamerGate and still be misogynist

One of the things that made me want to revisit Bayonetta is that her creator, Hideki Kamiya, has actually gained a small amount of notoriety as a game dev opposed to #GamerGate who attracted moderate levels of harassment. (And by that I mean that he was harassed by #GG proponents, but certainly not anything comparable to what women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have faced.)

However, it’s very important to remember that even though he opposes #GamerGate, Hideki Kamiya is still very much a misogynist. Here are just a few things he’s said about Bayonetta in the past:

Well, if I had to pick one, I would say it is the scene where Joy first appears in the game, with Bayonetta and her impostor getting into a pose battle. That was my way of expressing the feminine notion that, to one woman, all other women are enemies. Even women walking by each other will check out what the other is wearing, and might smolder a bit with antagonism. Women are scary. (source: Bayonetta dev: to one woman, all other women are enemies)

I strongly feel that women outside should dress like her. Like, when she does a hair attack, you’d see the skin. I want women to wear fashion like that. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

But anyway that’s how we’re creating Bayonetta’s moves and all that, and that’s actually the most fun part of this game, thinking about all that stuff. So you will be able to see what everybody in the team likes in a girl from the finished project. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

[On whether her outfit really is just hair] Yes, completely hair. That means that she’s actually naked, but naked because that’s just hair, that’s not clothing. She has strong magical powers, she’s using her strength, her magical power to keep her hair on her body, to make it form an outfit. So when she gets weak or something, she might just lose her magical power, and if that happens…you know what that means. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

In other words, Hideki Kamiya is someone who has zero problems objectifying women, whether in real life or in fiction. He also has designed Bayonetta explicitly to appeal to male sexuality, and has no problem equating a woman’s worth with her sexual appeal.

Still, some people point to Bayonetta as a character to be celebrated because empowerment! And choice feminism! Bayonetta’s chosen to be this way!

But that ignores the fact that Bayonetta is not real. All of the choices she makes – how to dress, how to act, who to flirt with and when – are actually being made by her creator, whose only priority is to present Bayonetta as a sexual object that is pleasing to men. Her sexuality isn’t presented as something to be celebrated – it’s something that is explicitly punished.

Part of Bayonetta 2 includes a secret fight against Rodin, a character from the first game who is a friend of Bayonetta’s. Unfortunately, the sequence that plays if you actually lose this boss fight is… suuuuper rapetastic.

If you win the fight, Bayonetta doesn’t have sex with Rodin. Sex is only something that happens if you lose. And yeah, a lot of people would argue that the flirtatious dialogue at the beginning of the scene means that it’s not rape. I mean, how can it be rape if she flirted with him, right? But that’s just victim-blaming of the worst sort. I point again to the fact that Bayonetta only has sex with Rodin if she loses; if sex can only happen with violence, that looks an awful lot like rape.

And then there’s just the whole way it’s presented. Bayonetta is naked lying face down, trying to cover herself while Rodin smokes a cigarette. All of which really just screams rape to me – especially when you consider that “rape” is (disgustingly) still widely used as a synonym for “defeat” by many gamers.

I hate Bayonetta as a character and all of the hollow, awful stereotypes about female sexuality that she represents, but I still find this sequence utterly repugnant.Yes Bayonetta is presented as in charge and blatant in her sexuality. Yes she is aggressively flirtatious. Yes she dresses provocatively. But she is not “asking for it”. No woman is ever “asking for it”.

This is categorically not what female empowerment looks like.

Maybe Kamiya isn’t a misogynist in the sense of hating women. I really can’t say – I’ve never met the guy, nor am I ever likely to have the chance to. But in terms of being someone who promotes the objectification of women and perpetuates toxic sexist stereotypes? Absolutely he is a misogynist.

Besides, have you seen her character design?

Part two: everything about Bayonetta is wrong

So here’s the image that I decided to work with:

20140615210025!Cereza_Bayonetta_2_renderHoo boy. Looking at this, I’m actually a little terrified of Hideki Kamiya, because Bayonetta isn’t even remotely human. Clearly Kamiya has a fetish for weirdly elongated, rubber-boned snake women. Literally every part of her body is wrong.

Let’s start with the easy part. Heads:

Bayonetta-heads

Bayonetta is a whopping nine heads tall. So if you at Bayonetta and think “wow, her head looks really small”, that’s because it’s weirdly tiny. The average human is 7 heads tall, with half a head variance on either side. That’s an extra two heads of height!

Furthermore, Bayonetta’s legs by themselves are 6 heads tall. So just like Hyung Tae Kim’s anatomy nightmares, you could put Bayonetta’s head on just her legs and it would be as tall as a real human. Brr. (I did try to draw that, by the way, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as I’d hoped.)

When doing redraws, parsing the anatomy is usually pretty simple. But with Bayonetta, I found myself stumped and had to resort to drawing part of her skeleton to figure out what was going on:

Bayonetta-skeleton

Oh god. My head hurts.

Looking at this, about the only thing that I can give Bayonetta’s creators for is that she does, at least, have a ribcage and internal organs. However, Bayonetta’s spine is just ridiculous – it’s bent at a 130 degree angle there. And sure, there are contortionists out there who can sit on their own heads, but even they can’t fold their spine sharply in half in the middle.

There’s also this confusing thing that happens in order to elongate Bayonetta’s breasts (we’ll come back to that in a second) that results in her having the world’s longest sternum. The average human sternum is 17cm (6.69 inches) – and is significantly shorter in women. But despite spending way too much time trying to figure out a base for an estimate, all I can say is that her sternum is just too long, okay?

Her arms are also weirdly messed up:

Bayonetta-boobs-elbow

 

To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck is happening with her right arm, other than her shoulder is completely dislocated. I can partially dislocate one of my shoulders (on purpose) and I still can’t reach backwards that far. As for the rest of her arm… Man, I don’t know. I mean, it looks like it might be correct? But the foreshortening combined with the extreme anatomy distortion makes it really hard to tell.

As for her left arm, it’s waaaay hyper-extended. Now I’ll admit that it’s actually not beyond the realm of anatomical possibility – I have a few friends with hyper-bendy elbows and they like to squick me out by bending them freakily. (Stop it bendy friends!) But a choice was clearly made to hyper extend the arm so that the foreshortened hand wouldn’t block the view of her breasts, which. Okay. I guess most dudes don’t share my squick over elbow hyper-extension, but it still strikes me as really weird.

And her breasts! (I said I’d come back to those…) I can’t get over how weird and elongated they are. They look like baguettes stapled to her torso and… just… what? What’s up with that? I mean, when’s the last time you heard a guy say “hey, look at the sub buns on that chick”? Never, that’s when. Because normal humans fetishize round breasts. Melons. Basketballs. Not baguettes.

But the thing I find most disconcerting of all is Bayonetta’s pelvis:

Bayonetta-pelvis

When I was drawing her skeleton, I was weirded out by how tall Bayonetta’s pelvis is. It just seemed out of proportion, and way too large in comparison to the ribcage. So I drew a perspective box around the pelvis, duplicated the layer, rotated it, and stuck it on top of the ribcage. And her ribcage is only a tiiiny bit bigger than her pelvis, which is just about a million kinds of wrong:
Human-SkeletonThe pelvis on this (real, not fake) skeleton is slightly more than HALF the height of the ribcage. It’s true that there is an awful lot of variance in the length of the human ribcage, but we’re not talking anywhere near enough variance to make Bayonetta’s freaky pelvis remotely plausible.

All of which leaves me incredibly stymied. Normally this is the point where I’d try to correct everything and redraw the figure over the original art with normal human proportions. But in this instance, I’ll concede defeat because really – what’s the point? When literally everything about Bayonetta is wrong, it seems easier to just point you to photos of Bayonetta cosplayers. (Who, it’s worth noting, still manage to be very sexy despite their handicap of having an “ordinary” human skeleton.)

Concluding thoughts

There’s a legal concept that I find useful in this situation – namely, fruit of the poison tree. Basically, Bayonetta is not an empowering feminist figure, because everything that she is has been tainted by the deeply-held misogyny of her creators. At no point does Bayonetta have any real agency over her sexuality because she is entirely fictional. Rather than being a celebration of female sexuality, Bayonetta is a shallow stereotype constructed out of sexist stereotypes and objectification who only serves as a mirror for the misogynist views of the people who designed her.

A conversation with Ron Edwards about Circle of Hands and rape [LONG]

[Trigger warnings: talk of rape and sexual abuse]

Circle of Hands is a game by Ron Edwards that is currently being crowdfunded on KickStarter. Ron describes it as a “stark, mud-and-dung Iron Age fantasy role-playing game”. On it’s face, when I first read about it it looked like another OSR-style (Old School Revival) game, which isn’t my thing. But then other people in my gaming circles on Google+ started talking quietly about their concerns regarding Circle of Hands and the matter-of-fact way that the setting document (linked from the Kickstarter) presented brutality towards women.

I knew this was something that I wanted to blog about, because the lazy reliance of game writers and developers on rape as a device in games is something that I really, really, really hate. (The link is a VERY LONG piece that I wrote providing a non-exhaustive catalog of gross examples of rape in games and other geek media. Be warned, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading.)

But instead of firing off a quick angry post, I wanted to at least try to have a conversation with Ron first. I’ve had occasion to talk with Ron in meatspace a fair bit at GenCon the past <mumble> years – we’ve shared dinner and played games together. And after the recent awfulness here, I really didn’t want to have another conversation about something important devolve into internet poo-flinging.

Thankfully, Ron was game and we had what felt like (to me) a pretty good conversation. He consented to me posting it publicly, so here it is, lightly trimmed and formatted for ease of reading.


 

My first email to Ron

1) The lack of warning about rape on the KickStarter page itself

It really, REALLY bothers me that rape is a serious thing that seriously happens in this world and that there is NO mention of it on the KickStarter page. Like, when I first saw the KSer page I was like, oh, an OSR-style game. Okay. And you know, OSR isn’t my bag but I can see why people like it, so I moved on with my life. So I’m really concerned that there are going to be people who back this expecting some good old-fashioned OSR-style murder-hoboing and wind up getting completely blind-sided by the rape.

Whatever your stance on rape as setting, I think it’s our responsibility as artists to make art that doesn’t harm our audience. And the way that rape is discussed in your setting, very unapologetic, very matter-of-fact, is potentially incredibly triggering. I know that it was minorly triggering for me – I didn’t have a panic attack the way I used to, but it did get my heart racing and make me very twitchy in that “fight or flight” way for a few minutes. So I really hope that you would revise your KSer to say that this is a part of the setting, and that you’d tell your backers as well.

Honestly, the types of people who are attracted to this sort of game? I really don’t think it would hurt you in the least. But again, I come back to my firm belief that artists should not harm their audience. That DOESN’T mean you can’t create difficult work! I am totally not saying no artist should write about rape ever! It DOES means that you have to give people who would be harmed by our work the ability to know that and to self-select themselves OUT of your audience.

2) The meta-optics of the reactions to your game

The people I know who have backed it have all been white or white-passing cismen. The people I know who have (quietly) been talking about having a visceral aversion-reaction have been almost entirely women (with one guy), covering a range of gender identities, expressions, and sexualities. And that’s where I really start to have problems, because the people who have a problem with it are too afraid to speak up because they don’t to waste energy on a conversation where white cis dudes are defending rape as setting, because it’s just too close to our lived reality where white cis dudes defend and excuse rape in real life.

But I can’t help asking myself. WHY is it primarily white cis dudes who are attracted to this material? And why has it ONLY been white (or white-passing) cis dudes in my circles, which are pretty diverse!, who have been willing to publicly say “hey you should support this KickStarter”?

And to complicate the issue even further, Circle of Hands is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a larger phenomenon of geek media properties that are nostalgic for a time when men were men and women were raped. It started, arguably, with things like Game of Thrones, and has only grown from there. And of course, the problem with a meta-pattern like this is that there’s no ONE person you can point out as being misogynist. But the pattern still exists and we shouldn’t ignore that. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back and say “well sexism is over”, because as the last three days have proved, it’s really, REALLY not.

3) The defense of rape

The other thing that is deeply emotional for me is this – why are so many game writers who are white cismen SO COMMITTED to defending rape? Take, for example, James “Grim” Desborough who is so committed to rape as setting that he wrote an article called “In Defense of Rape” and actually advocates against convention harassment policies. Or the writer of Cthulutech, who when he was asked why Cthulutech had so much rape said that it “only” had 6 pages about rape. SIX PAGES?? That is a WEIRD and CREEPY level of thought to put into rape, for reals.

This isn’t to say that you are a weird and creepy misogynist like James Desborough!! But again, it’s hard to ignore the meta-pattern. Why is it that the creators who want to write this into their games and who are defensive about rape as setting all happen to be people with the most privilege in our society? And if it were just one or two media properties, it would be like, okay whatever. But when you see it again, and again, and again. It’s like – why are there so many white male creators who want to tell stories where women get raped? Why do so many creators want THAT to be the story that gets told?

This isn’t just true of games, either. This is true of pretty much every medium ever, but ESPECIALLY geek media. (Seriously. I wrote a seriously long post about it here on GaW.

3a) Women need stories in which they don’t get raped

To paraphrase Jessica Hammer, our society believes that the only stories that we can tell about women revolve around their vaginas. And thus, any tragedies that happen to women are vagina tragedies. We need to change the cultural narrative surrounding women, that female characters exist to serve as sexual rewards for proper (read: male) heroes and to get raped.

Again, it’s a matter of meta-patterns. Can I point to Circle of Hands and say that THIS. THIS GAME. THIS GAME IS WHY RAPE CULTURE EXISTS. No, of course not. That would be ludicrous. But can I say that it fits into a pattern of media properties in which many stories about women can feature rape, or the threat of rape? Yes.

4) A false version of history

So much of the defense of these types of fantasy settings revolve around history, but that is a false version of history. The history that we have learned is a history that has actively erased the stories, accomplishments, and contributions of women and people of color. (That’s what Thou Art But A Warrior is about! The tragedy of a great society that will not only be destroyed but ERASED because they are not white.) This idea that women in history existed only to have babies, make textiles, and get raped and that they only started doing important things in the last century or so is completely false. And yet when people try to highlight this fact, they get told that they are ignorant and uneducated.

5) This other section on gender and sexuality

It doesn’t do anything to alleviate my discomfort, I’m afraid. The fact that women can be Circle knights only serves to reinforce the inferiority of all those other women, because the Circle knights are exceptional. Their ability to transcend gender oppression only serves to reinforce that all those other women get raped and stuff because they’re just not awesome enough, which is discomforting and problematic for me.

Especially given that there seems to be a lot of hedging. Well women can think they’re in control of their sexuality, but it’s really controlled by the men in their lives. And some women can be powerful, but only by exerting power through men. Even though women nominally have freedoms, their freedom depends entirely on men and isn’t something intrinsic that they own.

And as for the expectation of revenge for rape? Do I feel better knowing that rape is a thing that happens to women, but then the menfolk will get really mad and go shiv the guy? Well, no. Because now you’ve got a woman who got raped and a guy who got stabbed, which just makes things worse for everybody. The answer to sexual violence is not MORE VIOLENCE, and despite all of the negative feelings I have about my personal experience with sexual assault, I wouldn’t want someone to go stab or otherwise beat up the guy who assaulted me.

This has gotten kind of rambly, so here’s where I’ll stop.


 

Ron’s initial response

*1)* *The lack of warning about rape on the KickStarter page itself*

In line with my above comment about the artist guy, my response is “YES.” You are right and I will get on this, today or ASAP.

Minor idea:

… It DOES means that you have to give people who would be harmed by our work the ability to know that and to self-select themselves OUT of your audience.

True! And as well, I hope, to see it as a reaching-out with/for trust and to go there with me on that basis, on a self-selected basis just as you say. The rest of my responses are pretty much all about this.

*2) The meta-optics of the reactions to your game*

I see what you are saying. I’d like for the work eventually to be understood as NOT defending and excusing rape in real life, and I think that an initial fear that it is, is unavoidable. I neither laud nor lament my situation as a white cis-male – that doesn’t mean I am sneakily pro-rape like  the guys you describe. But I do understand that genuine suspicion would fall on me about that, and that trust will not be automatic.

On the plus side, you’ve reached out to me with some hope for it, and so have a couple of other people. With any luck, and with an eye on the manuscript as it develops from anyone who wants to, the game might earn a place as “that thing by the white cisguy which goes there, which is scary, but it actually goes where it should.”

Having just published Shahida without being Arab or Jewish, and having received surprised joy about it from Lebanese readers and radical rabbis, among others, I think I’ve managed some pretty tough stuff to date, in terms of triggers and emotional risk.

But I can’t help asking myself. WHY is it primarily white cis dudes who are attracted to this material? And why has it ONLY been white (or white-passing) cis dudes in my circles, which are pretty diverse!, who have been willing to publicly say “hey you should support this KickStarter”?

I think you’ve answered this, and I agree with you: the reasons for suspicion and fear are real, and no one is going to put themselves out there as a target for hordes of abuse from privileged fuckheads. I accept that. If the game is to overcome this barrier, then I think an initial period of such suspicion is unavoidable. I am willing for whatever success it achieves (the above-mentioned “it goes where it should”) to be a long-term goal. After all, the available manuscript is the rawest possible, completely initial rough draft. It’s freely available, not just to backers, for a reason beyond mere system playtesting – because I want exactly these issues to be dealt with transparently. Or transparently on my part, it’s OK for people to stay private.

And to complicate the issue even further, Circle of Hands is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a larger phenomenon of geek media properties that are nostalgic for a time when men were men and women were raped. It started, arguably, with things like Game of Thrones, and has only grown from there. …

Ooooh, OK, deep breath. No, Circle of Hands is not part of that phenomenon. It is the anti-Game of Thrones RPG, just like Sorcerer was the anti-White Wolf RPG. Sorcerer went through two minutes of initial reactions of “Oh, a Mage knock-off,” and then such talk instantly evaporated as soon as anyone read past the first page. I expect that to
happen here, because it will be utterly, frighteningly apparent. I think it already is in the playtest draft, and will become even more so.

I fucking hate Game of Thrones, for several reasons, not least of which corresponds exactly what you said about that guy’s lame-ass picture. And the rape stuff, just as you say.

All that said, I accept that fear of Circle of Hands being part of that phenomenon is a legitimate fear. I intend to accept that fear as a part of a process of contact, to whomever is willing, with sensitivity to their histories, and without resentment of those who are not.

We can’t just pat ourselves on the back and say “well sexism is over”, because as the last three days have proved, it’s really, REALLY not.

Not in that camp even a little bit.

*3) The defense of rape*

I’m in complete agreement with everything you’ve written in this part.

This isn’t to say that you are a weird and creepy misogynist like James Desborough!! But again, it’s hard to ignore the meta-pattern.

Agreed. And which I intend to break, most harshly, in my small corner of publishing and in my small corner of the library of gaming. Can I? I don’t know. With help, perhaps.

You don’t have to convince me it’s a problem. I’m there.

*3a) Women need stories in which they don’t get raped*
*4) A false version of history*

My response to these isn’t called for without some feedback about my statements made above. I will only say that Circle of Hands is not the “game where player-characters get raped because realism.” Fear that it might be? Sure. Verdict that it is? I ask for a look at it past the fear, and help with its final form. That’s exactly what you’re providing
already, which I appreciate and am not asking for anything more.

*5) This other section on gender and sexuality*

Your comments here let me know the writing needs to be sterner and more explicit. Just as you asked me not to read your post defensively, I ask the same here. I’m not arguing against your feelings.

… The fact that women can be Circle knights only serves to reinforce the inferiority of all those other women, because the Circle knights are *exceptional*. Their ability to transcend gender oppression only serves to reinforce that all those other women get raped and stuff because they’re just not awesome enough, which is discomforting and problematic for me.

It says the opposite: that exceptionalism is the mistaken perception of the society around them, and not the reality at all. I understand that you didn’t see this there, and I will make sure it REALLY REALLY says this.

Especially given that there seems to be a lot of hedging. Well women can *think* they’re in control of their sexuality, but it’s really controlled by the men in their lives. And some women can be powerful, but only by exerting power through men. Even though women nominally have freedoms, their freedom depends entirely on men and isn’t something intrinsic that they own.

Again, it says the opposite: that men *think* they’re in control of women’s sexuality, but they’re not. I understand that you didn’t see this there either, and I will make sure it REALLY REALLY says this too.

And as for the expectation of revenge for rape? Do I feel better knowing that rape is a thing that happens to women, but then the menfolk will get really mad and go shiv the guy? Well, no. Because now you’ve got a woman who got raped *and* a guy who got stabbed, which just makes things worse for everybody. The answer to sexual violence is not MORE VIOLENCE, and despite all of the negative feelings I have about my personal experience with sexual assault, I wouldn’t want someone to go stab or otherwise beat up the guy who assaulted me.

I think this one might wait for further dialogue. Briefly, the setting is not offering the “way I think it ought to be.” This is an illustration of the problem: that social justice does not exist and that the setting doesn’t feature solutions. Frankly, I think modern life isn’t much better, and my fantasy setting calls that shit out. Or it should, in its final
form.

Thanks again!


 

Back to me! I say more stuff

*2) The meta-optics of the reactions to your game*

I see what you are saying. I’d like for the work eventually to be understood as NOT defending and excusing rape in real life, and I think that an initial fear that it is, is unavoidable. I neither laud nor lament my situation as a white cis-male – that doesn’t mean I am sneakily pro-rape like  the guys you describe. But I do understand that genuine suspicion would fall on me about that, and that trust will not be automatic.

It’s always tricky pointing out this sort of thing, so I appreciate that you follow the distinction I’m trying to make. Shit like this was why I stopped posting on Story-Games, because every time I tried to say something like “notice how the only people who are talking in this thread about sexism in games are white dudes? Again?”, I got shouted down by a hoard of dudes – each of whom was offended that I was calling THEM PERSONALLY sexist. Which. Augh. No.
Meta-patterns are useful things that shouldn’t be ignored, especially when they mirror the dominant power structure of our society. Sure it’s almost always hard to zoom in and get an accurate picture of things, but that doesn’t obviate their usefulness.
Anyway. I’ll say to you what I always say. Get pre-readers who aren’t white cishet dudes, as many of them as you can. Especially with the nature of the material your game is supposed to handle. Get people who belong to groups who live with the daily reality of sexual and physical violence to read this over so that you can make sure what people here is what you actually want to say and not something else entirely. Because if you want to do a thing that handles this kind of material, you have to try REALLY REALLY HARD to make sure your work differentiates itself from the toxic background radiation of rape culture that pervades geek culture.
But I can’t help asking myself. WHY is it primarily white cis dudes who are attracted to this material? And why has it ONLY been white (or white-passing) cis dudes in my circles, which are pretty diverse!, who have been willing to publicly say “hey you should support this KickStarter”?

I think you’ve answered this, and I agree with you: the reasons for suspicion and fear are real, and no one is going to put themselves out there as a target for hordes of abuse from privileged fuckheads. I accept that. If the game is to overcome this barrier, then I think an initial period of such suspicion is unavoidable. I am willing for whatever success it achieves (the above-mentioned “it goes where it should”) to be a long-term goal. After all, the available manuscript is the rawest possible, completely initial rough draft. It’s freely available, not just to backers, for a reason beyond mere system playtesting – because I want exactly these issues to be dealt with transparently. Or transparently on my part, it’s OK for people to stay private.

Another thing that’s come to my attention (please don’t ask me to name names) is that there are fans of yours who are aggressively attacking people who express trepidation over Circle of Hands with all the usual attacks. STFU, rape because history, ignorant bitch, blah blah blah. And you know what, I recognize that you personally are not saying this stuff. But I hope you’d consider saying something specially pointed at your fans/supporters?
Because this is a thing that I see kind of often with popular white male creators (or at least this is the group I have observed it most prominently with) – they attract a certain sort of overly zealous (usually male) fan as part of their overall audience that personally identifies with their work, and who interprets any criticism of this thing that they love as an attack against them. There are different ways you can respond to that as a creator.
The worst are people like James Desborough and J Scott Campbell who link their fanbase to the criticism and get them all riled up so that their fanbase will go harass the person that is criticizing them and they get to keep their hands clean, so to speak. That’s pretty fucking awful. Then you’ve got a middle ground of creators like Joss Whedon who are mostly oblivious to this effect and don’t do anything to perpetuate this kind of fan-perpetuated-awful, but don’t do anything to prevent it either. The last are creators like Scalzi, who are aware of this sort of bullshit and tell people to cut it out.
As, arguably, one of the founders of the indie-design movement and a very large name in indie design, I hope that you would say something publicly about people using your name to attack people who feel threatened by this earliest draft of your work.
And to complicate the issue even further, Circle of Hands is not an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a larger phenomenon of geek media properties that are nostalgic for a time when men were men and women were raped. It started, arguably, with things like Game of Thrones, and has only grown from there. …
Ooooh, OK, deep breath. No, Circle of Hands is not part of that phenomenon. It is the anti-Game of Thrones RPG, just like Sorcerer was the anti-White Wolf RPG. Sorcerer went through two minutes of initial reactions of “Oh, a Mage knock-off,” and then such talk instantly evaporated as soon as anyone read past the first page. I expect that to happen here, because it will be utterly, frighteningly apparent. I think it already is in the playtest draft, and will become even more so.
I fucking hate Game of Thrones, for several reasons, not least of which corresponds exactly what you said about that guy’s lame-ass picture. And the rape stuff, just as you say. All that said, I accept that fear of Circle of Hands being part of that phenomenon is a legitimate fear. I intend to accept that fear as a part of a process of contact, to whomever is willing, with sensitivity to their histories, and without resentment of those who are not.
Okay. Cool! I like to hear you say that, because Game of Thrones is seriously just the worst. But here’s the thing – I didn’t get that vibe at all. And neither did anyone else that I’ve talked to who shared my discomfort.
So this comes back to my “differentiating your work from toxic background radiation” point. It might be worth identifying what about the current draft makes it read that way and actively undermining that? Hell, even adding a section about “this isn’t a love letter to GoT and here’s why it’s the worst ugh seriously” or something to that effect would be helpful. (Although I’m sure you could word that more intelligently that I can while uncaffeinated on a busy Monday morning.)
GoT is kind of The Hotness when it comes to Fantasy right now, and anything that is a “harsher” and “realistic” take on Fantasy is automatically going to get compared to GoT, whether you like it or not.
…The fact that women can be Circle knights only serves to reinforce the inferiority of all those other women, because the Circle knights are *exceptional*. Their ability to transcend gender oppression only serves to reinforce that all those other women get raped and stuff because they’re just not awesome enough, which is discomforting and  problematic for me.
It says the opposite: that exceptionalism is the mistaken perception of the society around them, and not the reality at all. I understand that you didn’t see this there, and I will make sure it REALLY REALLY says this.
Great.
Again (coming back to a common theme), part of the baggage that can’t be escaped is the number of games I’ve played/read that SAY women are equals, but then proceed to treat them in ways where they are exclusively sexualized, deprotagonized, and fridged. So when I read that section, what read to me as equivocating came off as the usual equality lipservice that happens in most fantasy games. (IE, the original Baldur’s Gate where the gender selection screen at character creation proclaims that women are equal to men, only the programmers didn’t include a single romance option for women in the first game.)
Especially given that there seems to be a lot of hedging. Well women can *think* they’re in control of their sexuality, but it’s really  controlled by the men in their lives. And some women can be powerful, but only by exerting power through men. Even though women nominally have freedoms, their freedom depends entirely on men and isn’t something intrinsic that they own.

Again, it says the opposite: that men *think* they’re in control of women’s sexuality, but they’re not. I understand that you didn’t see this there either, and I will make sure it REALLY REALLY says this too.

And as for the expectation of revenge for rape? Do I feel better knowing that rape is a thing that happens to women, but then the menfolk will get really mad and go shiv the guy? Well, no. Because now you’ve got a woman who got raped *and* a guy who got stabbed, which just makes things worse for everybody. The answer to sexual violence is not MORE VIOLENCE, and despite all of the negative feelings I have about my personal experience with sexual assault, I wouldn’t want someone to go stab or otherwise beat up the guy who assaulted me.

I think this one might wait for further dialogue. Briefly, the setting is not offering the “way I think it ought to be.” This is an illustration of the problem: that social justice does not exist and that the setting doesn’t feature solutions. Frankly, I think modern life isn’t much better, and my fantasy setting calls that shit out. Or it should, in its final form.

This is the part that gives me the biggest heebie jeebies, I think. The “there is no social justice”. You’ve done a good job of explaining your intentions, which is great. But there’s a long, long, long history of white-dude creators who have come before you and profoundly fucked up the “social justice is dead” thing in Fantasy. Execution will be everything here.

Ron’s final (brief) response

Get pre-readers who aren’t white cishet dudes, as many of them as you can. … Because if you want to do a thing that handles this kind of material, you have to try REALLY REALLY HARD to make sure your work differentiates itself from the toxic background radiation of rape culture that pervades geek culture.

Agreed and already in progress.

… is that there are fans of yours who are aggressively attacking people who express trepidation over Circle of Hands with all the usual attacks. STFU, rape because history, ignorant bitch, blah blah blah. And you know what, I recognize that you personally are not saying this stuff. But I hope you’d consider saying something specially pointed at your
fans/supporters?

Gaahhhhh … argh, even if someone did want to stand up and fight about any aspect of this discussion, can’t people see that doing this is toxic to the game’s promotion? I’m not impaired or feeble or whatever, I can converse about this without cheerleaders, and the whole thing can stand or fall on the merits I and the decently-concerned people bring to it. Right? (that’s rhetorical) Can’t they see that there is NO BENEFIT to this behavior? Gah!

So yeah. I think I should post about this, although obviously I can’t make people do this-or-that thing, or not do it. But I can be pissed that they’re dumb enough!!

white male comics creators

I’ve been reading comics, close to comics pros, and been smirched in comics fandom for long enough to know exactly what you mean.

As, arguably, one of the founders of the indie-design movement and a very large name in indie design, I hope that you would say something publicly about people using your name to attack people who feel threatened by this earliest draft of your work.

Without doubt. Don’t even need the advice. Gah!

Okay. Cool! I like to hear you say that, because Game of Thrones is seriously just the worst.

Plus being as stupid as a mineral of low worth. Oh, look, NO plot whatsoever! Also unacceptable.

As I seem unable to avoid in my game texts, I’m already drafting a literature & cinema review that’s relevant to the game, and Game of Thrones will figure in it as the negative example – so, yes, already planned, and has been from the start.

I appreciate your kind words about how I’m trying to position the game relative to it (well, to all sorts of things).

This is the part that gives me the biggest heebie jeebies, I think. The “there is no social justice”. You’ve done a good job of explaining your intentions, which is great. But there’s a long, long, long history of white-dude creators who have come before you and profoundly fucked up the “social justice is dead” thing in Fantasy. Execution will be everything here.

It’s an interesting dynamic in play, because the characters don’t have much concept of social justice, but they’ve just seen some, and fought for it, and wouldn’t be in the Circle without it, so it’s as if the players’ more sophisticated sense of this can breathe the rougher, tougher air of fighting for it with raw conviction but no rhetoric. I’d appreciate a critical reading on a later draft, if you’re willing.

… Is it alright if I blog some or all of this conversation (including your response to my response, if you care to make one) publicly? I think there’s some good stuff here.

Absolutely. I’m good with any of the conversation or the whole thing being posted publicly. I’ll link to your discussion of it as well.


Concluding thoughts

I was trepidatious about how this would turn out. There have been times in the past when I’ve tried to reach out to male creators in the indie tabletop scene about something that bothers me and been rudely slapped down by defensive dudes with no intention to really consider that they might be doing or saying something problematic. And given Ron Edward’s status in the community, the idea of trying to start a conversation about “hey, this thing you’re making really bothers me” was definitely daunting. So the fact that a civil conversation was had is a relief.

Do I agree with everything that Ron is saying? No. And I’m still not likely to ever play Circle of Hands. But it’s nice to know that my concerns were heard and taken seriously, and I can be hopeful that the final version will be something that is ultimately not harmful. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Why I won’t be going to PAX any time soon (and why that makes me really, really sad)

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while but haven’t because I don’t want to be That Feminist Who Only Writes About Rape Culture. I’ve been wrestling with the fear that if I talk about rape culture too much that people will stop listening to me because I’ll be seen as an embodiment of every strawfeminist stereotype out there. “Yeah, yeah, wundergeek. We get that you’re obsessed with rape. So, like, can you please just shut up already?” Ultimately, though, I feel like this is important enough for me to “risk” not being taken seriously.

So as I’ve mentioned before, I had a pretty serious experience with sexual harassment at last year’s GenCon. As such, the issue of convention harassment is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Like many other events in male-dominated nerd subcultures, harassment is a real problem at gaming conventions. Unfortunately, while other male-dominated nerd subcultures (ie tech, skepticism/secular activism) have started to engage with the issue of harassment at conventions/conferences and to implement anti-harassment policies, the attitude toward this problem by gaming event organizers is, shall we say, less than helpful. For the most part, event organizers would rather bury their head in the sand than take this on a serious issue.

And sure, I get it. Harassment is absolutely a shitty thing to have to deal with, and it sucks having to make plans for how to deal with it. But hand-waving and saying “it’s not your responsibility” or “it’s not a real issue” just isn’t an adequate response. The lack of harassment policies at major gaming conventions is something that is harming real people, and organizers need to get over their discomfort and start implementing serious policies to deal with the problem.

The notable exception to all of this is PAX (Penny Arcade Expo). PAX Prime and PAX East not only have harassment policies, they also have Enforcers on the show floor available to enforce the policy as incidents occur. Even more encouraging is their (sometimes controversial) ban on booth babes, something I’d love to see at GenCon but frankly don’t expect to see ever.

Recently among the indie tabletop tribe, attendance has been shifting away from GenCon due to a number of factors mostly related to the ever-increasing cost of being an exhibitor on the show floor, and PAX has been picking up a lot of that slack. While not originally a convention that included tabletop gaming as part of its focus, there has been a growing interest by attendees in tabletop gaming and a lot of independent designers and smaller game companies have been quite happy to take advantage of that interest. So between their progressive stance on booth babes, their serious anti-harassment policy, and environment that doesn’t price indie creators out of the show economy, PAX should be a convention that I would be happy to support, right?

Well…

Were PAX not affiliated with Penny Arcade, I would be delighted to go, or to tell other people to go. Unfortunately, the creators of Penny Arcade have repeatedly proven that when it comes to rape culture, they Just Don’t Get It. All of these efforts to make PAX a welcoming and safe place for female attendees aren’t because Gabe and Tycho care about whether women feel welcome and safe. It’s about business and not alienating a very large potential customer base. Gabe and Tycho themselves have an, unfortunately, long and checkered past with being openly supportive of rape culture.

Most notably there was the whole, long, sordid dickwolves fiasco, which I mentioned in a previous post here on GaW:

There’s a Really, really long summary here, but in a nutshell they made a comic that joked about rape, then made fun of the rape survivors who complained about the comic, then SOLD SHIRTS based on the rape-joke comic, then stopped selling the shirts when it started hurting attendance at PAX but never really properly apologized. Or rather they did, but it was a “we’re sorry you were offended” sort of apology, which actually isn’t a real apology at all.

 (For the record, I was in the camp that thought the original comic was funny but that their subsequent response to objections was completely unacceptable and Not Okay.)

 Anyhow. The point they were making with the original comic was a good one. Did they need to make that point with rape? Nope. Not at all.

If that was the only instance of this kind of bullshit, I might still have been inclined to roll my eyes and look past their misdeeds and their faux apology. Unfortunately, more recent events have proven that the Penny Arcade creators haven’t really learned much of anything from their experiences with the backlash against the dickwolves comic and t-shirts. Last month, there was a Kickstarter for an awful tentacle rape card game called Tentacle Bento that got pulled due to violations of Kickstarter’s TOS. And then Gabe then came out as being against the pulling of the Kickstarter, because, you know, freeeeedom.

There’s a detailed breakdown here, but basically Gabe went from saying that Tentacle Bento’s Kickstarter shouldn’t have been pulled because, you know, censorship, to questioning the mental health of his critics and finally dismissing the issue all together. Because that’s totally a great, PR-minded response from a business person who professes to want to make women welcome at PAX because it’s good for business. Nope. I can’t see how having one of the creators of Penny Arcade, who has already gotten in trouble in the past for making jokes trivializing the existence of rape culture, make jokes and belittle the concerns of people concerned about rape culture in the gaming would possibly make women thinking about attending PAX feel less safe. Nope. Not at all.

That would be bad enough, but I guess Tycho felt like he had to get in on the supporting rape culture action too. Not very long after Tentacle Bento, the new trailer for the upcoming Hitman: Absolution was released, which pretty much shows Agent 47 beating the crap out of scantily clad, overly sexualized assassin-nuns.  Unsurprisingly, this drew a fair amount of criticism, especially as the Hitman games don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to producing women-friendly promotional material. So what did Tycho have to say about people criticizing the new trailer?

Well, he called their complaints “infantalizing chivalry”, for one. He also said that “the swooning and fainting and so forth about this stuff, the fever, is comical in its preening intensity”. And naturally he set up strawmen that completely mis-characterized the criticism against the Hitman: Absolution trailer before knocking down said strawmen as being “a crock of fucking shit”. (You can read the entirety of his post here.)

Wow. I feel really confident that Gabe and Tycho understand my concerns about rape culture in gaming and that they care about wanting to help me avoid repeats of last year’s harassment by marking PAX as a space where rape culture is not welcome! Oh wait, no, scratch that. What I feel really confident about is that Gabe and Tycho care about wanting to make money by increasing female attendance at PAX conventions and that they plan to do that by taking some common sense measures to make sure that women want to go by making sure they won’t get harassed and stuff.

So here’s the part where I feel conflicted. On the one hand, the PAX harassment policy is what I have been advocating to see at other large gaming conventions. There’s anecdotal evidence out there to suggest that harassment is taken seriously and that violators are removed swiftly from the convention. And that’s great! One of the things that I am most sad about with regard to my inevitable return to GenCon next year (pregnancy is going to keep me from attending this year) is the knowledge that I will be constantly monitoring situations for the potential to become unsafe, because GenCon has done nothing as of yet to enact serious anti-harassment policies. So you think I’d be more enthusiastic about a convention that is designed to safeguard the safety of its female attendees, right?

Unfortunately, I can’t get past the continued support that Penny Arcade’s creators have given to rape culture, nor can I get past the persistent scorn and ridicule that they have heaped on those who speak out against rape culture in gaming. Wanting to address the culture that gave my attacker tacit permission to violate my boundaries and know that he could expect not to face serious repercussions is not “infantalizing chivalry”. It’s looking out for my own damn safety. The anger  I feel about the incident I suffered isn’t “comical in its preening intensity” – it’s righteous fucking anger that the trauma that I suffered, and that other women like me have suffered, in a convention space continues to be dismissed as not a real issue, as nothing more than “swooning and fainting and so forth” by us poor hysterical womenfolk.

Gabe and Tycho have a huge audience. They have the potential to use that audience for good, or at least not to use their audience for evil. But instead they take every opportunity they can to mock people who speak out against rape culture and belittle their concerns, and their audience is paying attention. And that makes me sad, because PAX is a good convention that I would like to be able to support, and there are good people going to PAX who I would also like to support. But I can’t countenance giving money to people who think rape is funny and that rape culture just isn’t a thing.

Double-header: Destructoid’s New Editor & Harassment of Feminist Bloggers

Before you read any further

So the funny thing about people is that they change. Imagine that! At the time of writing these posts, I never could have imagined that Jim Sterling would have a change of heart, but he did indeed. He was actually gracious enough to let me interview him about how he’s reversed his stance and how that happened; you can read the interview here on Gaming as Women.

The internet being the internet – there’s no real point in taking this down. It’s out there forever. But I can at least put it in context.


 

[Edited to add: Some folks kindly pointed out that my discussion of rape culture in the third section is problematic wrt trans people. Mea culpa if you saw the earlier version of this post. I’ve gone back and edited my comments.]

[Hi, folks. At the time I’m writing this, it looks like Destructoid may have been hacked. I’m going to provide links to pertinent stories for when the site does come back, but don’t freak out if those links don’t work right now.]

So there are two things that I want to write about today. They’re going to seem unconnected up front, but they really are. But I’ll talk about each thing separately and then come back to elucidate how these things are connected.

Thing the first: Destructoid’s new Editor-in-chief

It’s been a while since I’ve written about Destructoid. I’ll admit that I’ve started actively avoiding content on Destructoid, since I know that all that’s going to happen is that it will inevitably make me mad. I don’t visit periodically to see what bullshit Jim Sterling has gotten up to recently. Nor do I read my Google Alerts for Jim Sterling because, you know, what’s the point?

But something happened to catch my attention. It seems that Destructoid has a new Editor in Chief. I guess Niero has gone and gotten himself a job at Harmonix, which is great for him I guess. So who did they replace Niero with? Dale North. …great.

For those of you who’ve started reading this blog recently, or who don’t remember this from previous posts, a bit of a recap. See, I wrote my first post about how Jim Sterling is a repugnant human being and blatant misogynist after a Twitter-dustup in which he called a woman a “feminazi slut”. This actually caused enough of a flap that a non-apology was issued by Sterling, that mostly went ‘okay that was bad but she deserved it and the nasty feminists are being meeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaannnnn to meeeeeeeeee’. It was around this time that a reader forwarded an email from Niero responding to his complaint about Sterling that pretty much read as “he crossed a line, but he’s totes a nice guy! honest!”.

Of course, less than 24 hours later, Jim published a story that he ended by saying:

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some vaginas that have not been raped yet, and Kirby told me I need to “get on dat sh*t!”

Which, you know, didn’t sound like he’d really learned a whole lot from the experience of being raked over the coals for calling someone a “feminazi slut”. It was at that point that I sent an email in complaint to Niero (a copy of which I posted here on this blog). Predictably, I never received a response. So you might think that I would be pleased by the fact that Destructoid is going to have new leadership. And that might be the case, if it weren’t for the fact that that new leadership is Dale North.

See, Dale North has professed to have great personal affection for Jim Sterling. And like Jim Sterling, Dale really likes to make rape jokes in his official work both on Destructoid and Japanator. Let’s not forget that it was Dale North who titled an article about the banning of RapeLay from Japanese shelves: “RapeLay raped off Japanese shelves for good”. To make it worse, he used this as the headline image:

For fuck’s sake. I’m just as mad now as when I saw this the first time.

Of course, Dale would like to have his cake and eat it too. Despite being a fan of rape humor, he actually made a faux-introspective post in which he asked his fans if he was a sexist pig. Predictably, they leaped to his defense and assured him that – no, the evil feminists were just being mean and that he was just fine. Of course, the fact that some of those fans were female is, in some people’s books, enough to completely obviate any charges of sexism against Dale. Because as we all know, if you can find one woman who doesn’t think that you’re sexist that means YOU’RE NOT SEXIST. It’s fucking magic.

Anyway, I wish I could say that I had hopes that this will mean a new era of non-rape humor from the editorial staff at Destructoid, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Thing the second: Harassment and death threats of feminist bloggers

Something I am thankful for on a daily basis is the fact that, despite the fact that this blog receives an unholy amount of traffic for a blog devoted to such a specific (and controversial) subject matter, I have not experienced the harassment, stalking, and death threats that many female bloggers face – especially feminist bloggers. Mostly the trolls that I get confine themselves to ‘lol, feminist bitches be crazy’ or ‘you must be fat and ugly’ or ‘you need to get laid you fugly lesbian’. (Hell, sometimes I get all three at once!) Off the top of my head, I can only think of one person ever saying anything that could be construed as a death threat, and even that was pretty passive in that I was told I should go lie in front of a train. And I’ve never, ever had anyone threaten me with rape.

So why bring it up? Because I suspect that my experience might put me in the minority of feminist bloggers. The reality is that far too many feminist bloggers face harassment from trolls that goes far beyond looking for lulz. S.E. Smith recently posted on Tiger Beatdown about the harassment that they and other bloggers have experienced, and the stuff that is quoted seriously curls my toes:

It took a few years to reach this point, but I finally have, the point where I do have concerns about my physical safety, and have had to reevaluate certain aspects of my life and work. I’ve gotten those emails that send a long chill down my spine and create a surging feeling of rage, mixed with helplessness. People have sent me my social security number, information about my family members, identifying details that make it very clear they know exactly how to find me. They  have politely provided details of exactly what they’d like to do to me and my family, they send me creepy things in the mail.

‘I’m glad your stupid cat died,’ someone wrote me last October. ‘You’re next, bitch,’ and followed up with my street address.

…seriously. SERIOUSLY???

It’s a good week, these days, if I only get 15-20 emails from people telling me how much they think I should die, or how much they hope I get raped, or how much they hope my cat dies or I lose my job or fall in a hole or get shot by police or any number of things people seem to think it’s urgently important to tell me in their quest to get me to shut up. We are not talking about disagreements, about calls for intersectionality, about differing approaches, about political variance, about lively debate and discussion that sometimes turns acrimonious and damaging. We are talking about sustained campaigns of hate from people who believe that we are inhuman and should be silenced; the misogynists, the ‘men’s rights activists,’ the anti-reproductive rights movement, the extreme conservatives, the fundamentalists. The haters.

This is beyond just fucked up. I am so beyond thankful that I have not had to deal with hate of this magnitude, because the backlash that I do receive is already enough to make me second-guess myself sometimes. We need to speak out against this sort of thing, all of us. It isn’t right that female bloggers should have to worry about the safety of themselves, their families, and their pets simply for daring to have an opinion online. As the kids say these days, shit is toxic, yo.

I hope to god if anybody reading this right now has friends who say anything like these comments – be it on a blog, facebook, forum, WHATEVER. CALL YOUR FRIEND OUT AND LET THEM KNOW THIS IS NOT OKAY. Whatever you think of someone’s personal politics, it is a basic human right not to fear for your safety.

One of these things IS like the other

So how are these things related? Sure Jim Sterling and Dale North make some vile comments. Sure they tell jokes about rape and domestic violence and those stupid feminist whores. But those are just jokes, right?

Wrong.

We live in a culture that trivializes sexual harassment and sexual assault, violence against women, and rape. (And not just against women! Rape against men too! And people who identify as something outside of a gender binary!) When prominent community leaders like Jim Sterling and Dale North make rape jokes, they are propping up the rape culture that leads to less than 6% of rapists ever getting convicted of a crime. They’re propping up a culture in which (around) 1 in 6 women and (around) 1 in 33 men are the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime. They’re propping up a culture in which cops blame victims of rape because they were “asking for it”. And they’re propping up a culture of online harassment, of graphic threats of rape and sexual violence.

“But, wundergeek!” you may be saying. “There’s a difference between joking about rape and threatening to rape someone!” But that’s not the problem. The problem is that jokes about rape contribute to the notion that rape is something trivial, something unimportant, something permissible. Jokes by community leaders contribute to this notion even more! Dale North and Jim Sterling can joke about how they’re just “garme jurnalists”, but the fact is that they are major voices in the gaming community and their audience is HUGE. Much larger than mine. Their words have weight.

It’s time for prominent figures in the game industry to acknowledge that they’re responsible for the environment that their words create. Because as long as our community leaders are allowed to make misogynist “jokes” about rape and violence against women, how can we expect the sorts of criminal harassment that feminist bloggers face to go away? If rape is something normal, acceptable, and permissible, can we be surprised when the women who dare to speak up for women’s rights are threatened into silence?