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Sunday, August 12, 2012

There's harassment going on in the X community. I'm an Xer. Now what?

The topic of sexual harassment in video games has received attention in Forbes, the New York Times, and NPR's "Talk of the Nation" recently-- if you've been actively following the topic at all you probably won't hear anything new, but it's good to see it being discussed in publications and programs like these. If you listen to the BBC's "Assignment" on the topic of "Guns, Girls, and Games" you can get the added benefit of actually being able to hear what in-game sexual harassment sounds like, and it's every bit as simultaneously disturbing and stupid as you might expect. The program also includes interviews with Grace of Fat, Ugly or Slutty and Jenny of Not in the Kitchen Anymore, two sites devoted to compiling experiences of in-game harassment, who describe (with a tone of "Can you believe this?") how unprovoked and frequent it can be.

What Grace and Jenny talk about is mainly comments heard in voice chat while playing FPSs (first person shooters) online as well as private messages sent during or after playing these games, mostly but not entirely on Xbox Live. I don't typically play these games, and when I do it's only with people I know, so I've never personally had these experiences. It's hard to imagine dealing with the simple awareness that you're female being taken as permission to unload sexist abuse on you, again and again, and they do describe it as incredibly fatiguing-- people play video games to relax, to escape from their everyday life, and the everyday life of a woman can include a lot of sexist nonsense that is the last thing she wants to encounter in her recreational time (not that there is a time when she wants to encounter it). But Grace and Jenny point out that this isn't the norm for them-- it's regular and unending, but not the majority of what they have to listen to while gaming. I suppose that would have to be the case, in order to retain some sanity.

There's an identity issue here-- a lot of people play video games, and there has been some sniffing at the stated statistic of 47% of video game players being women because the classification is "so all-encompassing as to be meaningless, bundling Solitaire alongside Diablo III." The people who just play games like Solitaire or FarmVille probably do not think of themselves as "gamers," but the people who play Diablo III or Cross Assault almost certainly do, and almost certainly play other video games as well. I really like what The Mary Sue's Becky Chambers has to say about what this discussion has done to her concept of herself as a gamer:
A lot of people (mostly men, it seems) have said that this sort of behavior makes them ashamed to be gamers, or that they want to stop calling themselves gamers altogether. A friend of mine — a man I met through a game, and who I have continued to be friends with thanks to multiplayer games — echoed this same sentiment last week. Though it’s encouraging to see that so many people won’t stand for harassment in any form, I don’t think that separating ourselves from the community as a whole is the answer. 
On some level, it doesn’t matter at all what label you give yourself. I don’t care if you call yourself a gamer, or a fan, an enthusiast, or whatever. What concerns me is not the label itself, but the underlying implication that the community behind that label is not one that people want to be associated with. This then further implies the bullying and harassment we’re witnessing is the gold standard for how gamers are supposed to behave. Yes, the guy who threatened me in WoW was a gamer, but so, too, were the guys who supported me afterward (and so am I, for that matter). The only commonality any of them had was their hobby. Their respective actions were markers of personal character, not of the pastime they all shared. 
To be fair, there are a few assumptions I will make about you if you tell me you’re a gamer. First, I will assume that you get excited about games, and that you will be happy to talk about them with me. I will also assume that there is at least one game that we both like very much. We will then be able to converse about this game, probably at length and with great enthusiasm. If by some rare occurrence we haven’t played any of the same games, then we’ll each recommend some of our favorites to the other. If we both play a specific multiplayer game, or at least play on the same platform, and if we’re getting along really well, we’ll probably exchange usernames. If the exchange doesn’t progress that far or if we don’t hit it off, we’ll have enjoyed sharing some geeky pleasantries with a kindred spirit. 
And that’s it. 
I see some useful similarities and differences between the discussion going on here and the one about sexual harassment at skepticism conferences.

Similarities: 

1. In both communities, women are a minority in terms of pure numbers as well as degree of power and influence.

2. In both cases, there are people who aren't defending sexual harassment per se so much as claiming it's just part of the atmosphere and reacting as though trying to remove it will destroy or at least damage this special community where people aren't PC and you can say anything. They like things the way they are, don't care if others are bothered, and fear what will happen if the people who are bothered obtaining any kind of power to change things because they think it will lead to the creation of a language police state where simply joking around will get them punished or banned.

3. In both cases, aspersions have been cast on the gaming/skepticism community as a whole because of incidents of harassment. Some people embrace this criticism with a sense of guilt or at least a feeling discomfort by association, while others angrily resent the suggestion that they have anything to do with it.

4. In both cases, there are status quo supporters--male and female-- who think that the complainers are complaining over nothing and should either a) shut up or b) go away or c) shut up and go away. This includes "chill girls"/"cool chicks" who think "It was just a joke" means something (something vindicating), believe any kind of attention is good attention, and/or don't believe that anyone else has been harassed because it hasn't happened to them.

Differences: 

1. Skepticism/atheism is a cause, a movement, whereas gaming really is not. Gamers generally would prefer that the world look more positively upon them and not assume that they're pathetic basement dwellers at best or serial killers and terrorists in training at worst, but they don't really have a political battle to wage. And they don't really have a PR problem on the scale of the majority of the country considering them immoral and untrustworthy people, the last minority they'd support for president.

2. Gaming is a community of consumers-- the majority by far do not design and create games; they purchase them (and of course those who design and create games purchase them as well). Inevitably articles about sexual harassment in gaming will also include sexual harassment about gaming (such as that which Anita Sarkeesian received) and then address measures that game makers can take to make it more difficult to harass people in-game, and sometimes whether the game is itself designed in such a way as to encourage harassment. These are interrelated but distinct issues that deserve independent consideration, and too frequently I see the ball being dropped there. Gamers can be nasty, but that isn't the fault of game designers. There's a line between participants and creators that exists in gaming which isn't nearly so much the case with skepticism/atheism. The discussion about what objectionable content there might be in a game should really be held separately from that of how players act, and are allowed to act. The "get more female speakers" discussion with regard to skepticism conferences is not the same as the "get more female developers" discussion in gaming.

3. Again when we're comparing an interest (gaming) to an ideology (skepticism/atheism), the latter is going to have cases of people arguing against harassment from the ideology whereas the former isn't-- generally speaking, anyway. There is nothing in particular about enjoying video games which makes a person more egalitarian, more considerate, more generous, etc. even though participation in online gaming gives people who do have these traits endless opportunities to express them, as any social occasion would. People argue that a person who presumes to be a skeptic has an obligation to reject bigoted thinking, or claim that since there is so much sexism in religion then an atheist has a responsibility to repudiate that along with faith, though I'm not sure these arguments are actually convincing to anyone who doesn't already agree. With gaming that proposition is basically a non-starter, and this will be pointed out by gamers who see absolutely no sense in having a discussion about harassment or sexism in gaming at all-- "We're having fun here. That's the point, right? End of story!"

There are plenty of other things to compare and contrast that can be pointed out, and I couldn't hope to list them all right now. But given that these two enormous discussions are going on in both community-specific and now in big name general publications, I think it's important to see whether people engaged in these discussions in either community could perhaps learn from each other's experience. There's a lot of geek/nerd overlap between atheism/skepticism and gaming, and it would be cool to see more celebrities of both cultures speak out-- and to each other-- on this topic. Phil Plait and Wil Wheaton, I'm looking at you! "Don't be a dick" could hardly be a more applicable message.

What we need is more conversation. Smart conversation, with both talking and listening. Given what I've seen so far, I'm optimistic.

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