Switching Positions: Fear, Gender and Privilege in Gaming

“Do you wanna maybe switch? Mix it up a little bit?”

“Pegging,” as defined by Broad City’s Ilana, “is when a woman wears a strap-on with a dildo [and] penetrates a man.” While finally hooking up with her longtime crush Jeremy, series straight-woman Abbi suggests that they “switch.” Misinterpreting this, Jeremy excitedly hands her his neon green strap-on, assuming the position on all fours and whispering “right in the butt” as a stunned Abbi mumbles her way to “I just need a minute” before escaping to the bathroom to call Ilana for advice on what to do. Ilana’s response: “Bitch, you know. You wouldn’t have called me if you didn’t.”

As Caroline Framke writes in her review of the episode for A.V. Club, the purpose of the scene isn’t just shock value laughs, but humanizing Abbi and Jeremy. Jeremy’s not ridiculed for liking being pegged, it’s used as a way of exploring the character. The scene compels because of how freely the show subverts gender roles and the audience’s narrative expectations without shaming either Abbi or Jeremy. Comedy is an excellent space to push at these boundaries, but typically relates the same tired, stale messages about gender and sex. This probably sounds familiar to anyone in games culture the past few years. Games certainly share a similar potential for character exploration, but gender roles within game culture — which prides itself on innovation and technical progress — are rigidly defined and dogmatically policed.

While Jeremy enthusiastically supports “switching” with a woman — in gaming culture it’s many men’s greatest fear. As Alisha Grauso states succinctly in her excellent The War for the Soul of Geek Culture, much of the uproar in games culture “is about fear.” Specifically, fear of losing the designated “male” role and being forced into women’s. Grauso quotes feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian’s Rolling Stones interview where Sarkeesian explains the culture’s fear of women and change:

But if we’re gonna dig down a little bit further, what’s happening is that the industry is changing. This consciousness-raising is happening…That’s what the GamerGate temper tantrum is reacting to. It’s trying to hold on to this status quo, this illusion that gaming is for men, that it can never change, that it can never be more inclusive than that. We’re thinking, “Well, inclusiveness is a great thing! Bringing more people into gaming, telling a wider range of stories from different perspectives — that can only be good!” They take that as an attack on their little base of male-dominated gaming.

Men, particularly heterosexual, white men, hold a specific, privileged space in gaming. These changes to culture threaten their privilege. And if you’ll permit me an aside: next to the word “problematic,” my least favorite word in criticism is “privileged.” Tumblr has bastardized that word beyond all notions of specificity, so I want to offer the definition of the word “privilege” as used in this writing, taken from Peggy Macintosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (1988):

“A privileged status allows the privileged to experience their daily life and identity as routine, all encompassing, normal, neutral and universal and is, therefore, generally invisible to those experiencing the privilege. This experienced invisibility renders discovering and taking responsibility for the privilege difficult and complex.”

These attacks on women in gaming, including doxxing, rape/death threats, and harassment come as women are making new advances in gaming and the tech culture at large. Activist and writer Soraya Chemaly, in an exceptional write-up on New Statesman, investigates how “online spaces are recreating the misogyny of the online world.” Chemaly reports:

The industry is overwhelmingly male and labour is sex segregated. Some examples: Twitter’s staff is 70 per cent male, with men making up 79 per cent of leadership and a whopping 90 per cent of the engineering staff. Fifty-nine per cent of employees are white. There is a similar gender gap at Facebook, where 85 per cent of the tech staff are men. Overall, the company is 69 per cent male, 63 per cent white. At Google, men make up 70 per cent of the staff, but 83 per cent of the tech departments.

Because of this, social media platforms are ill-equipped to handle reports of online harassment, routinely dismissing women are being overdramatic. In fact, 10 days after Sarkeesian announced a plan to “target online gender harassment” for those who regularly receive threats, Twitter’s CEO admitted how they’ve failed to protect women on their site. Predictably, Sarkeesian was lambasted and dismissed because death threats are “just part of the culture.”

“Fuck that propaganda you con artist bitch”

In games culture, much of the recent misogynist uproar targeting women is centered around the GamerGate culture war and a longstanding obsession with “objectivity” in all discussions of video games and video game culture. It’s a façade, of course, little more than PR handwaving meant to justify harassment campaigns. The pursuit of ethics, as many have pointed out, routinely means the targeting of outspoken women. Consider the case of Carolyn Petit. In 2012, Petit, then a GameStop reviewer, was called to be fired for giving GTA V a 9.5/10 for its sadistic treatment of women. Petit eloquently nails this in the bud, how these gamers harass women in the name of maintaining an unequal status quo:

Those who are attacking women in gaming spaces, attacking “social justice warriors” and the idea of video game criticism that analyzes the sociopolitical values of games, see people who engage in such criticism (people like me) as trying to bring about an imbalance to something that was already perfectly balanced and neutral.

Thus, the fallacy of the “bias free review” is ultimately about maintaining privilege. It’s about ensuring that a specific sect of gaming has their desires and motivations unnamed as neutral, so that they can continue to “experience their daily life and identity as routine, all encompassing, normal, neutral and universal.” By adopting the language of bias and objectivity, the desire to maintain privilege is falsely displayed as heroic, defensive act.

In 2013, when I wrote about gamers and racial anxiety, I argued that much of the vitriol in defending games from being called racist/sexist is because gamers feel they themselves are being denigrated as such:

Asking “is the game you’re playing racist?” is to ask “Are you racist (for playing this game?)” Gamers are saying: “I’m not racist for playing this game because the game is fun to play regardless. I’m not racist for playing this game because non-white people aren’t realistic in this setting. I’m not racist for playing this game because race doesn’t matter.” This defensiveness may serve to alleviate anxiety, but it limits discussions of racism to a moralistic and individualist framing. It debases the medium by denying its complexity.

Similarly, the fury of GamerGate attacks suggest a personal vendetta. The defenses against being called misogynist seem equally personal. But the core of that article is a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Good, Racist People:” In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs.” Rather than viewing racism or sexism as something we have lifelong struggles with, that we fight against, conceal, capitulate to, the static image/understanding of racism/sexism makes them think of the “racist” an evil, venomous Other. Now I think GGaters and similarly caustic trolls have utility in this conceptualization and exploit, propagating it further.

Scary Black Man from Resident Evil 5

Using Linda Woolf and Michale Hulsizer’s 2004 study “Hate Groups for Dummies: How to Build a Successful Hate Group,” as her framework, researcher Jennifer Allaway writes how persecution is used as a recruitment tactic:

Woolf and Hulsizer state that one essential feature of the hate group is that it can “provide a sense of belonging, identity, self worth, safety, and direction for those experiencing crisis or vulnerability in their lives.” When comparing this idea to the undertones of a fairly normal quote from the /gg/ 8chan board, this facet of #Gamergate becomes especially clear. This anonymous (and typical) member of #Gamergate uses descriptors such as “ugly, acne-ridden” and “basement dwelling” to characterize how the rest of the world views other #Gamergate members. By deprecating the entire community under the guise of using “the enemy’s words,” they unite the entire group, and recruit anyone who already has these self-esteem issues. Emphasizing “We have NOTHING TO LOSE” encourages not only action, but blind and thoughtless action: if they have nothing to lose, the consequences don’t matter. The only thing that matters is the approval and social interactions with your fellow members in the cause. In this way, they further radicalize their viewpoints in a way that isn’t controlled or even conscious. As Woolf and Hulsizer note, “Hate groups have little need to aggressively recruit individuals for whom hate is a way of life or individuals that are most committed to diversity and tolerance. Rather they recruit those who are most vulnerable and indoctrinate them in the process of hate.”

As it relates to the static, erroneous definitions of racist/sexist, there is a need for the moralized, individualist framing. If analyzing the misogyny in GTAV, for example, is experienced reflexively as an accusation of being a misogynist or a racist — a “uniquely villainous and morally deformed” troll — then the misperception as a personal attack not only sparks outrage and strident defensiveness, but can be used by Gaters to unite. Thus, an entire segment of gamers who refuse to have their privilege brought to light, see these analyses as a personal attack on their character. I don’t see this behavior among gamers with even a cursory understanding of privilege.

As Sarkeesian frequently states in the Feminist Frequency videos, “remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.” Clearly, Sarkeesian is arguing against judging gamers for content they enjoy. But the perception that she supports this has utility in recruiting and mobilizing privileged gamers (primarily men) who view her criticism as an attack. They rally behind this fallacy; it unifies them.

At the heart of all this is language. People want control over how games are discussed, what we’re allowed to say about them and what we aren’t. Saying a game is “misogynist” is a biased, unwarranted attack on its players and an injection of personal politics. Saying a game is “fun to play” is a politically neutral and derived from empirical data. Petit wrote on this when discussing the second review of GTAV GameSpot posted following the controversy of her initial review: “Despite what [commenters] may think, the new GameSpot review is not apolitical. It’s just differently political from my review. When the worldviews present in so many mainstream games…mesh seamless with your own…the politics present in these media can be invisible to you.’ Central to the discussion of language in games discourse is the language we use to talk about women. Two women in particular come to mind: Lara Croft and Bayonetta.

“If you need to learn how to talk to a Lady, ask your Mum.”

(Flawless*** plays in background)

Bayonetta and the Rhianna Pratchett-penned reboot of Lara Croft are oft discussed heroines. Both controversial, they’re somewhere in between empowered realizations of progressive ideals for strong women and simply being 1080p retreads of the same sexualized killing machines we’ve seen for decades. Parallel to this, I think women as a class are — in gaming, at least — certainly further along than being dismissed as a niche market, yet not fully respected as a major economic force in gaming. They’re somewhere in between. And of course it’s true that games are still designed for men and women are frequently objectified, it’s reductive to say all women in games are sex objects. This ignores the player agency and character narratives and for women while also assuming men play videogames with their penises.

Paste’s Maddy Myers similarly considers the nuances of these concerns in her analysis of Bayonetta 2, while calling for the end of the phrase ‘male gaze.’ As Myers writes:

“Male gaze” originally referred to an assumption that the camera, and the theoretical spectator, are assumed to be male. But not all men are straight — and not all camera-holders are men — nor are all spectators! […]In other words, “male gaze” is a phrase that makes a lot of assumptions, and none of them make sense in the context of games We discount the interests of non-men entirely, since any enjoyment they might have is considered “unintentional” on the part of the creators, and therefore irrelevant. This makes no sense at all, though, given that games not only allow but encourage the player’s self-insertion into the narrative, inviting people of all sorts to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Yet I’m still a fan of the phrase ‘male gaze’ because I think it refers to something very specific. Much research on marketing behavior incorporates the concept of “self-congruity” in assessing consumer purchasing decisions. As defined in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Science, self-congruity is “how much a consumer’s self-concept matches the personality of a typical user of a brand. Self-congruity theory proposes that consumer behavior is partially determined by an individuals comparison of the image of himself and the image of brands, as reflected in a stereotype of a typical user of the brands. High self congruity happens when a consumer’s own self images matches suitably with the brand image.”

Research has shown that high self-congruity increases sales of video games. So it follows that marketers and developers would try to match their product to the self-image of potential buyers. I think “the male gaze” refers to this — to the objectification of women to match the perceived (from a developer’s mind) self-image of potential buyers.

To that end, I’m of a mind with Katherine Cross (the GOAT of videogame/gender criticism as far as I’m concerned) who tweeted a few of her own reactions to Myer’s piece on Bayonetta while talking to critic and researcher Todd Harper.

I think the actual physical desires of gamers are too numerous to be reliable, but I think the self-image of gamers is more stable across demographics. This is why GGate frequently parades its token PoC, queer, female, non-binary etc. members: they share a unified self image even though they are demographically varied. The “male gaze” can refer to how women’s bodies are used to cater to them. I think the male gaze is more or less about capitalism, because ultimately what developers want is gamers’ money.

The male gaze is key because it shows how much of gaming pivots around the desires of this perceived group of privileged gamers and what all they feel is at stake. It works as a ‘regulatory ideal’ that shapes how games are created and the self image of people that play them. Like games, it’s not tangible but it’s still very real.

“People are seriously intimidated by my talent and honesty”

Lara Croft through the ages

Nothing exemplifies the progress of gaming as a medium better than its treatment and depiction of women, both real and virtual. Everything changes and evolves over time — even the definition of “woman” is slowly wresting itself from antiquated biological essentialism. It’s time we stop capitulating to fear, churning out (and praising) technologically advanced but creatively stagnate copies of what we’ve already created.

Men’s roles in games sure have changed over the years, haven’t they?

The gamers fighting against integrating women into games culture are operating with a lot of misconceptions: that men and women are at war for dominance, that critiques of their privilege are personal attacks, that accepting change means gaming will be dominated by viscous, domineering women trying to hurt and control them — these are hollow fears made real through threats and communities formed based on hate. But through nuance and refinement in our discourse we’re more than capable of substantive change and new, equitable positions.

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